Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Exploring the Passion for Ornamental Grasses at MetroHort

The first meeting of the New York MetroHort professional group featured Bill Kolvek, nursery owner, member of the Perennial Plant Association, frequent lecturer and New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and Bergen Community College, teacher about perennials and ornamental grasses. 

Kolvek offered a fast-paced presentation because it was clear he has a lot to say and share.  The audience warms to a speaker who had lots and lots of images to share, and Kolvek didn’t disappoint.  Full-color images of regal, fashionable, architectural, pretty grasses flowed like models on the runway.  And not so coincidently, elicited a few oohs and ahh’s along the way. Take that Victoria Secret!

Kolvek’s insight and knowledge of the grasses and grass-like plants was evident.  He made the lecture fun – with lots of anecdotes and background and real-life experience with growing and maintenance, that is all so important to the hort professionals in attendance.  After all, we have to live with more than the pretty catalog picture… Our clients’ gardens are living art that we manage over seasons.

The variety of ornamental grasses, sedges and rushes is astounding.  And the recent introductions make these plants a must-have addition in the garden and as part of any container garden composition.  Grasses provide a lucky extra in the garden: they offer four-season interest, color, winter beauty and food for pollinators.  Kolvek pointed out that many grasses now thrive in shade.  We also learned about many native grasses including the Carex pennsylvanica.  Nice flowering too. 

I liked the looks of ‘Goldband’ and while I couldn’t quite see it, Kolvek enthused about the plant’s olive green color.  That shade of green is a welcome addition to a garden designer’s palette. Overall, the plant was described as showing with lots of winter interest. The Carex elate 'Aurea' is a startlingly beautiful accessory to the blues and green grasses in the garden.

Love the Aurea with daisies

The Muhlenbergia capillaris grass was hands-down glamorous. Its showy pink plumes are pretty pink tutus that leave one swooning.  

There was mention of its inability to sustain our northeastern US zone 5, 6, 7 and thanks to global warming, 8.  I thought I heard mention this ballerina like grass is good to zone 5.  It’s a tender perennial…
However, I will tell you that I tried twice to include these beauties in Garden State gardens back in ’05 and ’06 and met with little success, even given a southwestern microclimate situation where the grasses were planted next to the house – giving added heat/warmth.   
I would so love to use this beauty (I still have the grower’s postcard in my home garden design office simply because it’s so pretty….
If anyone has other experiences or advice on this, please share.

Kolvek went on to say the Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ are the “coolest grass” he’s worked with. 
I love them too and have used them in several clients’ garden designs. 
Especially one in Spring Lake (aka “the Irish Riviera”) in the Garden State. 
Six years ago, I chose to include this grass as an elongated “S” border on one side of the small yard because of its beauty, no doubt – the color complemented the blue house color – but also because of its size and structure and flowering charm.

Panicum amarum ‘Dewey Blue’ was a new one to me and I very much liked the look.  I will surely use these in future garden designs.

Some exciting new introductions that left the audience as breathless as international fashion buyers included the Panicums ‘Thundercloud’ and ‘Ruby Ribbons’  

along with the Pennisetums ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Sky Rocket’ and ‘Cherry Sparkler’  – all with incredible foliage.   
Not hardy in colder climates but I will use as spectacular tender perennials in garden design and container compositions.

There was a pointed inclusion about bamboo – it’s a true grass, after all.
I do feel bamboo is an overlooked design element because too many are afraid of its invasive qualities. However, if you or the garden designer chooses wisely, bamboo is an elegant, unmatched addition to a garden: in containers – if too invasive – or in the landscape. Homeowners too often don’t know the difference. There are those that are indeed invasive (oy are they! We are in a constant battle with one neighbor’s creeping bamboo) and those that are just elegant grasses. I have often frequented Little Acre Farm ( to secure such grasses as Fargesia nitidia (grows to about six or seven feet).  
The variegated leaves of the Pleioblastus variegatus is like garden magic – the leaves turn beige in the winter and back to green in the summer.  Just be sure to keep this morphing maven in a contained space – it is one of the bamboos that will take over the garden.   

Tried and true wonders that Kolvek (and me) love include Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and ‘Little Bunny’ – good to zone 6 but could be ok in zone 5 due to our climate change… These stalwarts of the garden provide consistent texture, color and drama especially for smaller spaces.   Same is true for the variety of Miscanthus.  New to me was the ‘Gold Bar.”  Brilliant color for all-season interest.

Kolvek did warn about the self-sowing of the popular Moudry grasses

A cute highlight was when Kolvek showed how his puppy equally loves grasses and snuggled in this beauty, the clumping ‘Ice Dance’ along with his bone. 

As an adult dog, he still loves his bone-hiding grass! 

Light shade and moisture was suggested for the Carex (more light requires more moisture is a good rule of thumb.)
I loved the Rushes Kolvek previewed, including the Juncus ‘Twisted Arrows’ and ‘Unicorn!’  What fun for a zoo garden. 

I can see an evening solar light illuminating these twisting architectural specimens.

I use Liriope often and don’t feel they are overused when incorporated into a design appropriately and not just plopped all over.  They are hardy, require minimal maintenance and provide color and foliage options that give the garden a four-season interest. 
The new ‘Peedee Ingot’ is adorable.  And the color of preppy green and purple is exciting – I can’t wait to use this beauty.

The Lazula ‘Ruby Stilleto’ gave me a jolt of garden design inspiration just looking at the image! 

I used the Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Arabicus’ in a garden design back in ’01.  Because of the high cost of the Mondo Grass at that time, we used very few to line a walkway in front of dwarf  Nandina.  Over the years, we have divided the clumps with much success.  The black color fronting the winter red nandina and the light to dark green in spring and summer is outstanding.  There are very few black plants for us to use and I adore this one.   

I also use the Hakonechloa macra “Aureola’ and ‘All Gold’ frequently.  All season color and the texture are key. I love the way it feathers and fluffs in the breeze, too.  These grasses looked particularly stunning fronting dwarf Joe Pye Weed. The pink and glowing bright greens made a hit in the garden and with the client.

There was a short, lively Q&A following the exciting lecture with questions included “What kind of grass would you suggest for a 40th floor rooftop garden in New York City?” Answer:  short ones!  

Kolvek provided the MetroHort attendees a full plant list.  My NYBG friend and all things Horticulture, Charles Yurgalevitch, Ph.D., Director School of Professional Horticulture The New York Botanical Garden, and MetroHort Secretary (and all things Italian) was a true gentleman and shared his plant list with me.  Thank you.

Readers can go directly to the Kolvek Perennial Plants website:

The native plant list (found on the home page) is a godsend.  Be sure to use this helpful list.  You will be adding not just natural beauty and sustainability to the garden but you will be aiding our native pollinators by using natives and not invasive ornamentals. 

I couldn’t help but notice the lovely botanical art on the Kolvek Perennial home page is an Illustration by Anne Kolvek.  What a talented family!  Thank you for sharing your love of plants and celebrating the art of the Garden!

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