'A grass for every location': Ornamental grasses taking off in Island gardens

Fans of ornamental grasses in P.E.I. say demand for the plants is growing — and that it's about time.

'With all the wind that's here on the Island, it's really gorgeous just to watch them catch it'

Garth Davey describes the ornamental grasses as sensual and tactile. (Submitted by Garth Davey)

Garth Davey's garden in Kildare Capes, P.E.I. is full of ornamental grasses. 

"There are so many different shapes and colours of them and when they all go together it's just an amazing show."

Davey, a licensed horticulturist who works at Kool Breeze Farms in Summerside, P.E.I., loves the grasses.

"I find them so sensual and so tactile," he said.

"With all the wind that's here on the Island, it's really gorgeous just to watch them catch it."

Garth Davey uses ornamental grasses extensively in his garden in Kildare Capes, P.E.I. (Submitted by Garth Davey)

More natural landscape

Davey first started planting ornamental grasses while living in Ontario more than 25 years ago. 

The selection at the time was fairly limited. Now he has 16 varieties of ornamental grasses that he sells.

"I just think people have made a shift to a more natural looking landscape," said Davey. He's also a Prince County judge for the P.E.I. Rural Beautification Society and a director on the Tignish Communities in Bloom Society.

"There's a grass for every location and because they are so low maintenance, a lot of people really like them."

Ornamental grasses need very limited maintenance, except a trim in the spring. (Lovegrass Farm/Facebook)

'Easy to grow'

The key to growing grasses on P.E.I., says Davey, is adding some lime to the soil to bring it to neutral.

When the clumps get large and die off in the middle, he recommends cutting them up and re-arranging them. 

And his favourite tool in the garden for splitting clumps of grasses? A reciprocating saw.

"Really they're quite easy to grow," he said.

For someone just getting started in grasses, he suggests Karl Foerster.

"It's very perpendicular, I always describe it as looking like a Mountie in the garden," said Davey.

Paulette Phelan Kelly has been selling ornamental grasses in Dunstaffnage, P.E.I., for about a decade. (Lovegrass Farm/Facebook)

He also likes the Miscanthus, which are also called maiden or silver grasses. 

"It has great height with feathery plumes," said Davey.

"They're a later season grass but wow, they're a mainstay in the garden for September and October."

He also recommends perennial fountain grasses along walkways that people like to reach out and touch as they pass them.

Miscanthus purpurascens is sometimes called flames grass because of the colour. (Lovegrass Farm/Facebook)

Catching on

Islanders are catching on to ornamental grasses, says Davey.

"A lot more and I think as they have seen them introduced in landscape and they're interested in trying out in their own garden," he said.

"Because there are so many different heights and colours of the grasses

The grasses range in price from $8.99 to $14.99 at Kool Breeze Farms.

There are also some annual grasses. A popular one this year is fibre optic, because it looks like fibre optic cable, with a silvery ball flower.

Karl Foerster is recommended as a good starter grass for P.E.I. gardeners. (Lovegrass Farms/Facebook)

Patience is key

Davey also suggests gardeners need to be patient with grasses, as they do with all perennials.

"In the first year, they sleep, in the second year, they creep but the third year, they leap," he said.

He hopes to see even more Islanders planting the fancy grasses this season.

"They are so gorgeous with things like sedums, and daisies and salvias," said Davey.

"You can get a wonderful look that's kind of natural."

Schizachyrium or 'prairie blues' is blue in the spring and pinkish in the fall. (Submitted by Garth Davey)

Love of grass

Paulette Phelan Kelly and her husband Donnie have been sharing their love of ornamental grasses for more than a decade.

They operate Lovegrass Farm in Dunstaffnage, P.E.I.

The Kellys have been growing grasses for two decades.

"Many of our customers are people that move to the Island from Ontario and B.C. and they see it a lot more in the landscape there," said Phelan Kelly.

Lots of different types

Perennial fountain grasss pennisetum or 'desert plains' has feathery ends that people like to reach out and touch along walkways. (Submitted by Garth Davey)

"Everybody likes a different type of grass."

She recommends panicum grasses which have lovely seed heads ideal for sandy soils and some salt tolerance.

Purpurascens has beautiful fall colour and is sometimes called flames grass.

Paulette Phelan Kelly says this is an action shot of Miscanthus Giganteus blowing in the wind in her field in August. It wouldn't have reached its full height yet.

Low maintenance

"They're pretty low maintenance, all we really do is cut them back in the spring, to a few inches above the ground," said Kelly.

"I'd like to see more people using them in their home landscape and we'd like to see more on cottage lots as well."

She'd also like to see more ornamental grasses in public spaces.

"I know we have one grass in particular blue green moor grass that would be ideal for traffic circles," she said.

"It's used in Denmark for that purpose because it's really salt tolerant and it's a short grass that wouldn't give any issue of sight."

Panicum grasses have lovely seed heads, says Paulette Phelan Kelly. (Lovegrass Farm/Facebook)

'Rustle in the wind'

The grasses at Lovegrass Farm are sold bare root, not potted, a gallon size clump for $5.

Kelly thinks Islanders will fall in love with ornamental grasses if they give them a chance.

"A lot of the leaves will rustle in the wind," she said.

"And they're very tough, like I've watched in our garden, a wind storm one August and they just get swept down with the wind and they just swing back up again."

Blue-green moor grass is used for traffic circles in Denmark. (Lovegrass Farm/Facebook)

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog.