All three of our professionals this month recommend the same plant for the first time since I began writing this column. Alan Branhagen, the director of Powell Gardens in Kingsville, MO, describes Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Prairie Dropseed’ as a "lovely tuft of fine blades that somewhat reminds me of Tina Turner’s hair. The inflorescences are not colorful but open, airy and light reflective. ‘Prairie Dropseed’ has the Plants of Merit distinction from the Missouri Botanical Garden and matures to 2' x 2'.
Branhagen is also excited about the characteristics of Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Little Bluestem’.He says "This is one of the most beautiful native grasses in fall when it often turns russet reds, bleaching to more sandy through the winter. It is not seedy and remains in a clump, while the inflorescences are not showy but sparkle when backlit. Bluish leaved forms add to its interest in the summer." Little Bluestem grows to 3 feet tall with a 2 foot spread
The last selection from Branhagen is Sideoats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula . He says "The inflorescences are lined on one side with spikelets of scarlet anthers. They turn dry sandy blond for winter and remain ornamental". The plant is locally native and grows to only 18” to 3 feet tall with inflorescences and 18” wide. Sideoats requires full sun or only part shade in average to dry soils with good drainage.
Jan Vinyard and her husband Wayne operated Longview Garden in Lee's Summit, MO, for 27 years before retiring in 2007. Her first choice, Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Dot' has a nice 3-4' height habit with "plummy-red" inflorescences to 5'. "Distinctive gold cross bars make it show up in the garden to brighten up dull spots in the border. It spreads slowly and should be divided about every 3 years.” tall. Jan recommends Gaillardia 'Goblin', Sedum telephium 'Autumn Fire' and Aster nova belgii 'Professor Anton Kippenberg' as good companions.
Panicum virgatum 'Shenadoah' has a stunning combination of red-burgundy foliage through the summer and delightful tawny-pink influorescence. This is a native switch grass cultivar will grow well in places too wet for other grasses. Jan recommended good companions including Rudbeckia nitida 'Goldsturm', Monarda fistulosa 'Clair Grace' and Liatris spicata. Dried heads of these flowers all compliment each other in a winter landscape and offer great seed for finch.
I hope these relatively compact plants can help you take another look at including ornamental grasses in your perennial or mixed border. Life is too short and fertile garden soil is too valuable to put up with an underperforming plant.