Motion As A Landscape Element

60120+Landscapes appeal to our senses. The colors and textures of blooms and foliage are visually appealing. Floral fragrance and foliar aroma appeal to the sense of smell. Fruits and vegetables can provide flavor. Wind chimes, fountains and birds visiting bird feeders might add a bit of delightful sound and motion. Yet, the motion of certain plants in the breeze is rarely considered.

Weeping willow is famous for the way it blows softly in even a slight breeze. Unfortunately, it is also famous for thirsty roots, structural deficiency, and getting too big too fast. Mayten can do the same on a smaller scale, and in drier situations. California pepper is somewhere in between, since it can eventually get too big, and might have structural problems, but takes a while to do so.

Some of the various eucalypti have softly pendulous stems as well. Lemon gum and red ironbark are two of the better known specie that know how to blow in a breeze. Silver dollar gum is nice too, even though it is not as pendulous or as dynamic in the wind. Eucalypti that get too big for home gardens can be seen blowing in the wind in larger landscapes, such as parks or on freeways.

Two of the best trees for motion in the wind are not as popular as they used to be. European white birch that was so popular in the 1970s has become considerably less common that the less pendulous (but brighter white) Himalayan birch. The elegant and formerly popular Chinese elm has been replaced by modern ‘improved’ cultivars with stiffer stems, like the Drake Chinese elm.

Almost all bamboos, most big clumping grasses, and many palms are ideal for taking advantage of breezes. Mexican weeping bamboo really is comparable to weeping willow, but on a much smaller scale. Taller bamboos can catch a breeze on top even if lower foliage is sheltered. Pampas grass, although certainly not for every garden, has both dynamic foliage and dynamic blooms.

Of course, plants that move in a breeze can only do so with a breeze. They can not do much if sheltered by larger trees or buildings.P81222++++


Blue Festuca

90220To avoid confusion with dwarf fescue blue turf grass, Festuca ovina glauca is more familiarly known as blue festuca. If planted close together and left to spread as a small scale ground cover, it is much lumpier and mounding than uniformly spreading turf. It is a clumping perennial that is more popularly grown as distinct tufts of finely textured blue gray foliage that looks like gray sea urchins.

Either individually, or in small herds, these resilient gray sea urchins mix nicely with brightly colored flowering annuals. They do not need too much water, but can tolerate as much as annuals want. Their color is best in full sun. Partially shaded plants are greener, with longer and more pliable leaves. So are feral plants that rarely grow from seed. Modern cultivars are bluer than classic types.

The evergreen foliage does not get much higher than half a foot, with thin and less impressive floral spikes that stand a bit higher in summer. It slowly spreads wider, but before it gets a foot wide, it will probably be going bald in the middle. Overgrown or balding plants can be dug and divided into new smaller plants in winter. Old foliage that gets shorn in the process is replaced in spring.


P80915K.JPGJust about everything in this picture is icky! This species of pampas grass, Cortaderia jubata, is one of the most aggressive and noxious of the invasive exotic specie that have naturalized here. It seems to be incarcerated behind the weathered cyclone fence with barbed wire on top. The big water tank is is a harshly stark background. The tired old Douglas firs and ponderosa pines to the left and right seem to be unhappy here. The small coast live oak that is at least trying to make a more cheerful appearance is only oppressed by the surroundings. Only the clear blue sky above lacks the ick factor.

What is not visible in the picture is that there is no other flora in the area. Most of the area is covered with a thick layer of gravel to prevent vegetation from getting established close to the water tank. Weeds that manage to grow get cut down regularly. Only the pampas grass survives the ravages of the weed eater. It has been allowed to stay only because it has not yet been perceived to be a problem. It will probably be removed eventually as well. It would have been much easier to remove before it got so big. Now that it is blooming, it is likely to sow seed for more of the same.

Whomever gets the grim task of removing the pampas grass must contend with the nasty ‘razor grass’ foliage. The very sharp and very finely serrated edges of each leaf cause the worst sort of paper cuts! Even if handled very carefully, the long strap leaves have a way of getting everywhere. Someone tugging the base of the foliage with gloves and long sleeves can lose an ear to just one of the many long leaves that whip around so aimlessly.

However, someone who is unfamiliar with the serious nastiness of pampas grass might see this picture very differently. The firs, pines and oaks are not so bad. The water tank is a neutral background to the subject matter. The weathered cyclone fence with barbed wire on top, . . . well, let’s just say, . . . it’s ‘abstract’. Anyway, to someone who does not know better, the fluffy floral plumes of pampas grass that toss so many seed that have the potential to grow into an indefinite supply of the same nastiness are actually quite pretty.P89015K+.JPG

Fountain Grass

80725It was probably a good idea when it was introduced to California, but fountain grass, Pennisetum setaceum, became too much of a good thing for a few temperate regions in which it naturalizes and displaces native vegetation. Although it now works to inhibit erosion where it grows wild on the embankments of highway interchanges, it must sometime be mown because it is combustible.

In home gardens, fountain grass is more appealing if shorn back at the end of winter, and watered occasionally through the warmest part of summer. If feral seedlings need to be removed, a few may be left if they happen to grow where more plants are wanted, or to replace aging plants. Fountain grass should not be planted in regions where it is likely to naturalize but has not yet done so.

Fountain grass has narrow leaves that arch upward and outward so that the tips of outer leaves are just touching the ground. They might sag lower; or they might stand more upright. The fuzzy tan or pinkish tan flowers that bloom in summer may stand as tall as three feet. Individual plants live only a few years. The cultivar ‘Rubrum’ has striking purplish bronze foliage, and does not self sow.

Exceptions To The Pruning Rules

80228thumbWinter is the best time for major pruning of most plants. They do not mind it so much while they are dormant. However, there are exceptions. Winter pruning might be a bit too early for a few plants that are grown for their late winter or early spring bloom. It is best to wait until immediately after bloom to prune or trim flowering cherry, flowering plum, flowering crabapple and flowering quince.

Because these trees will be in the process of coming out of dormancy, it is best to prune them just after the blossoms finish, as new foliage is emerging. Some of the new buds will likely be ruined in the process, but there should be plenty to spare. If a few extra stems were left on deciduous fruit trees when they were pruned earlier, they can be taken as cut flowers prior to or while blooming.

Forsythia and Oregon grape should also be pruned after bloom, but with different technique. Oregon grape certainly does not need to be pruned annually, and may only need to be occasionally groomed of deteriorating stems. If and when it gets pruned, the oldest canes should be cut to the ground to favor newer canes. Forsythia canes should be cut to the ground after their second year.

Red twig dogwood and small willows that are grown for the color of their twigs must be pruned aggressively to produce new twigs for next winter; but there is no point in pruning their colorful twigs off while they are at their best. It is better to wait until just before new foliage is about to come out and obscure the twigs. They can be pollarded or coppiced. This applies to pussy willows as well.

Clumping grasses will start to grow soon, so can be shorn of their old foliage from last year that likely started to look rather tired by the end of winter. If left unshorn, new foliage and flower stalks will do just fine, but will come up through the old growth from last year, as the old growth lays down next to it and continue to decay. Once new growth develops, it will be more difficult to remove the old without damaging the new. Clumped grasses will look silly longer if shorn too early.