One of the first prints we had framed when we started working with ornamental grasses was The Tangled Garden by Canadian Group of Seven painter J. E. H. MacDonald (1873-1932). It still hangs above the fireplace in the main room of our house, reminding us of the challenges of the work and, in amber, green and red, complementing the colourful grass gardens visible from the two large windows.
Visual artists and artisans have turned to nature for their colour inspiration and dyes for centuries. Colour can express a mood, provide a background, act as an accent, suggest harmony, give a sense of scale and create the illusion of space and perspective.
In a famous 1846 essay, the French poet Baudelaire claimed that nature couldn't make a mistake when it comes to colour because form and colour in nature are one. He believed that true colourists couldn't make mistakes either, because they seem to know by instinct the tone values, the results of mixing and the science of counterpoint. "That's why they can create harmony with 20 different reds," he explained.
Subtlety is key
The key word in ornamental grass colour is subtlety. In spring and summer, grasses usually play supporting roles behind more showy shrubs, perennials and annuals. To the uninitiated they may seem like the supporting cast for peonies, roses, delphiniums and other divas. Experienced ornamental grass gardeners, however, know that grass colours range from greens, blues, reds, yellows and browns to white and even black. Variegated grasses are adorned with whites, ivories and creams.
The spring and summer garden may have a vibrant colour chorus of funky, lime green Carex albula. 'Frostv Curls,' a powdery blue Helictotrichon sempervirens, an intense burgundy Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' a burgundy Panicum virgatum 'Huron Solstice,' and a polished bronze Carex buchananii. Not only that, but leaves, stems, foliage, seed heads and flower heads can all be different colours. Grasses like Festuca amethystina, for example, change dramatically through the season. Its stem is as important as the leaf and flower head in colour selection.
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When the summer garden relaxes into autumn, grasses really come into their own. Flower heads are a parade of feathery bonnets and tasseled caps in purples, burgundies, pinks, bronzes, coppers and silvers.
Once open and primed to disperse, the seeds take on a subtler but no less dazzling range of hues - gossamer blondes, ethereal golds and diaphanous platinums. A group planting of burgundy-floweredMiscanthus sinensis 'Huron Sunrise,' Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' and variegated varieties like Molina caerulea 'Variegata' can really shine as the days shorten and the quality of light changes.
A fabulous combination is Saccharum ravennae with its towering, spear-like flowers, a medium-sized Miscanthus sinensis'Huron Sunrise' and a small Deschampsia cespitosa, which, when in flower, wears a halo of the finest lace. To complete the picture add autumn lingerers like Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum,' (Japanese painted fern), Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate,' delphiniums and unbridled cosmos. Almost any grass will dance with a dowager Rudbeckia 'Lacinata' or hardy chrysanthemums in autumn.
This is also the time when the almost purple Chasmanthium latifolium, burgundy Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron' and pink-suffused Miscanthus sinensis'Huron Sunrise' form a vibrant trio. In autumn a crimson M. 'Purpurascens' creates a magnificent counterpoint to the golden yellows of Pennisetum alopecuroides and P. alopecuroides 'Hameln.'
Practice makes perfect
Though it may seem daunting at first, with some practice and observation designing with the colour subtleties of ornamental grasses can be as rewarding as any other artistic or decorative endeavour. The "Grasses at a Glance" section at the back of this book, which profiles over a hundred hardy varieties, will help, for the variations are countless. Whether it is several grasses of one colour in a monochromatic scheme, a dominant colour with a range of complementary colours, or a selection of harmonizers like blues, reds and yellows, ornamental grasses are a colourist's dream.
Excerpted from Grass Scapes: Gardening with Ornamental Grasses by Martin Quinn and Catherine Macleod. Copyright 2003 by Martin Quinn and Catherine Macleod. Excerpted, with permission by Whitecap. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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