The winter garden brings to mind rhododendrons, dwarf conifers and plants with colorful stemwork like red twig dogwoods. And while these plants form a strong framework from which the rest of the garden can shine, our gray Humboldt winters seem to call out for just a little more than those simpler shrubs can provide — more color contrast, more movement and more variety in form. Evergreen ornamental grasses have fast become my go-to addition for a year-round, low-maintenance and waterwise burst of color to perk up those winter months. Here are a few of the varieties I'm planting this year.
Peruvian feather grass
Mexican feather grass has become almost iconic in California landscapes, since it goes so well massed in casual beachy landscapes, marching in rows in modern landscapes and in nearly any type of garden in between. Unfortunately, it's so easy to design with that it's become, frankly, overused and a little bit boring. Peruvian feather grass (Stipa ichu) has the same year-round good looks as Mexican feather grass, with the addition of foamy white flowerheads that rise above the foliage in fall and bring a new dimension to the look. I love the way it sways in the wind, adding a kinetic contrast to the more static shrubs and perennials in the winter garden. I cut it back every two years in mid-spring to keep it from forming dreadlocks, but you can also rake the seed heads and old foliage out a few times a year to keep it looking good as evergreen. It needs full sun and good drainage to look its best.
'Cha Cha' festival grass
You may be familiar with burgundy festival grass (Cordyline 'Festival Burgundy'), which is the color of a glass of red wine held up to the light — rich, warm and absolutely stunning in the landscape. Much as I adore that color, it's good to branch out from your favorites once in a while and try something new, and 'Cha Cha' festival grass (Cordyline 'Cha Cha'), has appealing apricot new growth striped in pink and olive green that matures to bright yellow later in the year. Like most clumping festival grass, this sun-lover will likely grow 5 feet tall and 7 feet wide over time, and has airy whitish flowers in summer. The leaf blades are thinner and lighter weight than those of spiky Phormium, so they have a softer appearance and more movement in the landscape. It's just one of the new "Dancers" series of clumping Cordylines, so look out for a number of new colors in the coming years.
'Black Adder' flax
Stiffly sculptural, this glossy-leaved plant creates an eye-catching architectural statement wherever you put it. While you wouldn't think such a dark plant would brighten up your winter garden, those chocolate-brown leaves have a shimmer to the surface that catches the light, making it a real standout. Though 'Black Adder' flax (Phormium 'Black Adder') is very easy to grow, there are two circumstances where I wouldn't plant it: in an area with lots of gophers, or in a sloping bed with landscaping fabric, where the stiff leaves will brush the mulch off and expose the fabric with every winter storm. It grows around 5 feet tall and wide, and while it's happiest in full sun, it can take partial shade if given good drainage.
I tend to skip those water-loving rushes (Juncus) in the landscape because they have a tendency to re-seed and their rigid foliage usually folds in half and breaks rather than swaying with the wind. But Cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum) and its big sister elephant Cape rush (Chondropetalum elephantinum) have an elegance to their form, and a lovely deep green color that is banded by dark brown sheaths all along each stem. The dark brown flowers at the tips add just enough weight in summer to make the cylindrical stems arch gracefully out from the center. Both look gorgeous near black-leaved plants like the aforementioned 'Black Adder' flax, and both prefer a little more moisture than the average grass, so it's OK to put them near downspouts or in that boggy area that never quite dries out in winter. Cape rush reaches 4 to 5 feet tall and a little wider, while the larger-leaved elephant Cape rush distinguishes itself with thicker stems, a more upright habit and a slightly larger size, to 5 to 6 feet tall. Give them full sun to avoid flopping.
Nearly fluorescent foliage on a diminutive plant makes the foreground of any planting pop. 'Everillo' sedge (Carex oshimensis 'Everillo') may be the brightest golden/chartreuse plant I know of, blowing away old favorites like golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola') and golden sweet flag (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'). Best in partial shade where it gets enough sun to color up, but not so much it burns, this showstopper of a grass does have one distinct downside: It's more delicate than other small grasses, so baby it until it's established and plant it where you can whisper kind words as you walk past.
If you're a Phormium fan but have never tried silver spear (Astelia nervosa chathamica 'Silver Spear'), you're in for a treat. The bluish-silver foliage with white undersides glimmers in the light, contrasting with the light green of the older leaves and making for a bright, cheerfully frosty accent in the landscape. Stiffly upright, it is smaller than most Phormiums and less likely to outgrow its space, growing roughly 4 feet tall and wide over time. While it does great in full sun, it is just as happy in partial shade, making it as versatile as it is easy to grow. Repeat the theme with dwarf, silvery-blue Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Snow' nearby.
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Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at www.GenevieveSchmidtDesign.com.