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Grasses in Containers (page 3 of 4)

by Rick Darke

Going Tropical with Grasses

One of the joys of container gardening is experimenting with plants that are not hardy in your region, including a number of beautiful tropical and subtropical grasses. Three distinct purple-leafed fountain grasses -- Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', P. s. 'Eaton Canyon' (also sold as 'Rubrum Compactum'), and P. 'Burgundy Giant' -- make dramatic container specimens in the summer and early autumn garden. None is reliably hardy below 40°F, but during winter they can be held in semi-dormancy in a basement or a garage attached to a house if you don't have a greenhouse. If fountain grass isn't exotic enough for you, try one of the purple-stemmed varieties of sugarcane, such as Saccharum officinarum 'Pele's Smoke'. In their semi-dormant state, the grasses will survive. Just don't let the soil in the pots dry completely.

For those of us fond of the aromas of Asian cuisine, it is delightful to have lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) in the garden. The crushed leaves of this subtropical native of India and Sri Lanka are strongly lemon scented. Lemongrass is cold hardy only through USDA Hardiness Zone 9, yet it makes an attractive pot plant in the sunny summer garden. Purchase starts each spring, or overwinter potted plants in a greenhouse or sunporch.

Arizona native Muhlenbergia dumosa is called bamboo muhly for its bamboolike stems and fine-textured foliage. Though not winter hardy in the ground beyond zone 8, it thrives in a container, luxuriating in the summer sun and adding a unique look to the garden. In warmer climates such as those of California and Texas, I've seen it growing with desert plants like cactus and agave. The imaginative container gardener can recreate these striking textural combinations anywhere in the country.

The current craze for bold-textured tropicals, such as cannas and bananas, also suggests exciting combinations with fine-textured grasses in containers. Even on a small scale, container grasses can be enlivened by interplanting them with broad-leafed plants, such as a mix of golden-variegated Hakone grass with bronze-leafed sweet potato vine.

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