Par for the course
In the New York metro area, planting a garden with 3 season interest is childsplay. Roll out of bed, throw some plants in the backyard, and there you go: 3 seasons covered. The 4th season, however, is a little less straightforward…
One approach is so painfully obvious and so thoroughly overplayed that we often don’t even consider these garden features to be parts of the garden, let alone winter interest. In many cases, they are treated more like parts of the built environment than living components of the garden itself. I am of course referring to evergreens, boxwoods, hollies, yews, and the like, which are often pruned to amorphous blobs more akin to cumulus clouds and glacial outwash boulders than their wild, natural counterparts. The insistence of stasis for these plants—maintaining a particular shape and size—is really an affront to the natural world and whatever the plant equivalent to ‘inhumane’ is.
Other approaches include checking proverbial winter interest boxes with the lifeless dormancy of deciduous ornamental trees, a well-manicured lawn adjacent to the garden bed, fresh layers of mulch, an arbor, a bench, or a replica of Manneken Pis. All of these options, the evergreens included, are lifeless, steady-state options that provide no more interest in mid-July than they do in mid-January. Their rigidness and permanency are easy to rely on for ‘interest’ but represent less the garden and its natural oscillations and more reflect our insecurity with nature’s tendencies towards change and cycles. The appeal of consistency, even in northern perennial gardens leaning into seasonality, is understandable and providing juxtaposition by applying these approaches can be compelling.
An alternative springs (winters?) forth
However, there is another approach to providing winter interest which embraces the changing seasons and doesn’t submit to the stoic, funereal character of the aforementioned winter interest staples. By no means is this a novel approach, it just doesn’t get the consideration and admiration it deserves. The approach is grass. YAY, GRASS! Like…real grass, though, not weed ‘grass’. Definitely not lawn grass. I am talking about real, all-American Grass. Quite literally a mind blowing plant as described by 19th-century settlers who, in some cases, were reduced to madness when confronted with the confounding scale of the tall grass prairies of the midwest, where the seas of grass were seemingly endless. These oceans were made up of mostly Panicum (Switchgrass), Sorghastrum, Andropogon, and Schizachyrium. They comprised the majority of what is historically known as the tallgrass prairie but, sadly, only a small percentage still exists in fractured tiles, most notably in the Kansas Flint Hills.
Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’, in particular, is a magnificent, 4 season plant that offers great benefits and provides variety throughout the year. It’s as reliable as the aforementioned winter interest options without the rigidity, physically or seasonally. Panicum does not have the seasonal stasis of its evergreen counterparts, but rather changes as the seasons progress in both size and color, and does so year after year. Additionally, while it is reliably physically sturdy in the garden, Panicum has a flexibility that allows it to move with a slight breeze while still maintaining its stature after a violent gale. Panicum’s seasonality and movement is what makes it so attractive and is what differentiates it from other winter interest targets. The tasteful gardener can of course advance these traits alongside more rigid, stagnant components, living or otherwise, to reinforce the landscape’s aesthetic throughout the year. Add back in the Manneken-Pis statue to spice things up and ‘chefs kiss.’
The clever gardener can rely on Panicum’s traits as a native stalwart to supplant the more mundane winter interest defaults. In spring, Panicum is a tuft of tender blades protruding from a dense base and increasing in radius as it extends to the sky, finally terminating in stiff spires with a sea green hue. In summer, the grass moves skyward again and begins a more upright vase-like posture as it matures and flowers. Fall brings a shift to a lighter green color while the plant proudly holds its fruited fronds high. As the temperatures continue to drop and early afternoons morph into late evenings, the Panicum’s color continues to change. Instead of shades of greens and greenish blues (even purples and reds in some varieties), the grass yields yellows, tans, and oranges. In most cases, by late winter/early spring these grasses are still standing tall, their fruit taken by the wind and delivered to soil, their color muted and grayed. At this point, the grass should be cut back to within six inches or so of the ground. For a few short weeks, there is little more than a stump left to recall the glory that was THE PANICUM! However, like all perennials, the Panicum soon rises again. Invited by warmer temperatures and brighter sun, new grass emerges.
“The nature of things is resistance to change…
…while the nature of process is resistance to stasis, yet things and process are one, and the line from inorganic to organic and back is uninterrupted and unbroken.”
William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth
In many ways, our answer to the winter interest question is a reflection of our resistance to change. We employ steadfast options we trust will remain the same so we can leave for the weekend and be confident we will come home to what we left. In contrast, nature is an amalgamation of change; change that occurs in seconds, days, years, millenia… Panicum embodies change in its life history and mirrors the seasons so reliably you can set your watch to it. Panicum reminds us of our position in the heavens, something like a longform sundial that keeps us honest about the true conditions of the day, the here and the now. So, instead of trying to instill the ‘same as it ever was’, embrace the ever-changing. Give Panicum a chance. You won’t regret it.