Grasses as Container Plants
Grasses, sedges and rushes are major players in gardens from coast to coast. But their textures, colors and toughness also have them headed for stardom in another role – as container plants. Here against a varied backdrop of settings at Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art in Nashville, Tennessee, are examples of the tall and the small, the bold and the delicate – something for everyone.
Perched on a sinuous stone wall at Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art in Nashville, the Terazo Planter by Frontgate shows just how well suited grasses are for containers. The ‘Cabaret’ miscanthus centerpiece is encircled by Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’, Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’, Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’, Lonicera nitida Edmee Gold™ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’.
A single, graceful bamboo muhly grass (Muhlenbergia dumosa) in an oversize container makes a dramatic solo performance in an amphitheaterlike part of Cheekwood’s Herb Study Garden. Here the earthy color and simple shape of the concrete Mars Pot by Vestrivas is reminiscent of ancient oil jars, making it a fitting addition to the Mediterranean atmosphere inspired by billowing rosemary and a weathered column remnant, originally part of Nashville’s State Capitol building.
At the entrance to Cheekwood’s Museum of Art, originally a mansion designed by noted architect and landscape architect Bryant Fleming, a classical statue seems to be sizing up a lively mix of tall, mop-topped papyrus, sedges and a basketgrass (Oplismenus hirtellus) trailing over the edge of a bean pot by Gladding, McBean. Sedges can bring a range of textures, heights and unusual colors to container plantings. Here Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’ is a vertical spray of amber tones, C. testacea, or orange New Zealand sedge, forms a fine-textured mound of auburn and green, and C. phyllocephala ‘Sparkler’ hugs the container lip with short, wide, variegated leaves.
An unexpected pairing of modern silver-colored pots with the informal texture of a native grass forms a dramatic scene against a limestone wall on the back patio of the Cheekwood mansion. Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is a very upright form of switchgrass, making it an ideal vertical element. Thick leaves are a steely blue color all summer, then transition to gold in the fall, making this a multiseason arrangement. Trio of zinc containers: Living Green.
Sticking to a limited color palette, with the main focus on varied textures and forms, can be every bit as eye-catching (even without flowers) as a container of neon annuals. Here playing with soft greens and variegation in creamy white and pale yellow was the rule. Tall, bamboolike Arundo donax var. versicolor strikes a pose in this Gladding, McBean container, courtesy of Living Green, fronted by Iris ensata ‘Variegata’. Around the edges are fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Desert Plains’), sedges Carex ciliato-marginata ‘Treasure Island’ and C. albula ‘Frosty Curls’, and shrubby rosemary and Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Snowkist’.
Delicate variegated river oats, Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’, a hot new plant from Itsaul Plants in Georgia, seems well suited to this Japanese Garden setting in the Small Giulia Planter by Campania. The grass even seems to mimic the surrounding canes of the bamboo grove. Suiting a container and its contents to the style of a garden will enable it to fit in seamlessly. And remember to keep scale in mind; a huge container in a small garden is a tricky arrangement, and a tiny pot in a huge border can get lost.
Want a little “pow”? Try a big cobalt-blue container like the Obsit Square Planter by Campania with a richly colored mix of chartreuse Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’), Rustic Orange™ coleus, Arcelia ‘Purple’ angelonia and eggplant-colored elephant’s-ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’). Another big plus with grasses is movement, and here the Hakone grass and elephant’s-ear catch every breeze and seem almost alive. This is also a good mix for a shady garden.
Subtle color matching adds another creative layer to gardening. The dainty pinkish flowers of Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ are a perfect fit with the hand-made terra-cotta Messina Vase by Seibert & Rice. Everything about this combination says focal point — the uprightness of the grass, and the height and vertical ribbing on the pot. If your garden has a preponderance of low plants or it’s in its early stages of planning, a bold container with a tall grass can have the same presence as a shrub or a piece of sculpture, and it’s mobile so you can reposition it as the garden changes.