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by Lynn Kirk, Public Relations Writer,  Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, reprinted with permission from the Richmond Times-Dispatch

grasses in the Asian Valley at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Traditional turf is a good choice for high-activity areas, but ornamental grass is a sustainable alternative elsewhere in the landscape. And it also changes throughout the year. Pictured is the seasonal change of eulalia grass. Photo by Don Williamson

non-hardy purple fountain grass

The foreground shows and in the distance the Conservatory’s reflection pools are now flanked by prairie dropseed, purple muhly grass and switchgrass at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
Photo by Don Williamson

Has your lawn set you up for what seems like a never-ending cycle of watering, mowing, fertilizing, aerating, reseeding, and then watering some more? If so, autumn is a good time to consider eco-friendly alternatives, including countless varieties of ornamental grasses. Unlike traditional turf, ornamental grass typically requires little to no watering once established. Deep roots, typically much longer than that of traditional turf, enable ornamental grass to better tolerate drought conditions. The longer roots also encourage infiltration of rainwater into the local water table, which helps improve water quality and reduces stormwater runoff.

Flowering perennials provide a nice complement to ornamental grasses, including this hardy dwarf fountain grass.  Photo by  Don Williamson

Flowering perennials provide a nice complement to ornamental grasses, including this hardy dwarf fountain grass. Don Williamson

“Ornamental grasses may be a better choice than trees and shrubs in several conditions,” said Grace Chapman, director of horticulture at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. “The grasses like poor soils, such as our area’s clay-heavy soil, and they typically don’t need fertilizer.” Many varieties rated for zone 7 are hardy perennials, reducing or even eliminating the need for annual plantings. For property owners, this can equate to less maintenance and expense. Since mature grasses can be divided for propagation of more plants, gardens also can be expanded without additional costs. Wildlife welcomes the switch from turf to ornamental grass. While birds rely on the grasses for food, thick clumps of growth provide cover, shelter and nesting sites, encouraging a more robust local ecosystem. Beyond practical reasons, there are aesthetic bonuses for incorporating ornamental grasses in the landscape: Their beauty provides ever-changing visual interest through all four seasons. With warm-season grasses, new growth appears in spring, stalks and plumes serve as focal points in summer and changing colors announce autumn. And unlike turf, at the end of the year, their texture and form provide structure in winter’s bare-bones landscape. Even with Richmond’s formal architecture and landscapes, ornamental grasses can find a home.
“They can be very structured and classic or more naturalistic for a meadow effect,” Chapman said. “There are so many varieties to choose from, so do your homework to achieve the effect you want.”

yellow grass

Many ornamental grasses, like this sedge, acknowledge autumn with eye-catching hues. Photo by
Don Williamson

Selections can range from cool- to warm-season growth habits, sunny to shade loving, dry to wet preferences, solid hued to variegated foliages, and upright to arching forms. Design flexibility also stems from varying heights at maturity, ranging from low-growing grasses for groundcovers to tall grasses for screens and backdrops. Most ornamental grasses are striking additions, whether planted in large expanses or mixed with annuals and other perennials.
“They can even be prominently positioned as an exclamation point in the landscape,” Chapman said. “Ornamental grasses add a completely different element to the environment, and they’re enchanting as they blow in the breeze.”

Ornamental grasses grow near the water at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, with the Tree House reflected in the background. Photo by Lucky Ginger Studio

Ornamental grasses grow near the water at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, with the Tree House reflected in the background. Photo by Lucky Ginger Studio

Sampling of Zone 7 Ornamental Grasses

Low height: Flame grass, prairie dropseed, ribbon grass, sedge

Dwarf varieties, medium height: Blue oatgrass, blue fescue, feather reedgrass, little bluestem, muhly grass, purple love grass, switchgrass, zebragrass

Tall height: big bluestem, fountain grass, maiden grass, pampas grass, ravennagrass,


Editor’s Note: This article first published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in October 2014.  

blue fescue

In terms of color, form and texture, even container plantings benefit from the addition of ornamental grasses like this blue fescue. Photo by Don Williamson.

Photo by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

red azalea

Fall blooming azalea with raindrops.

by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Did you know that the Japanese windflower is part of the same family as the common buttercup? If you look at the form of the flower and the leaves you can see the similarities! The family is Ranunculaceae and also includes ranunculus a bloom often found in bridal bouquets. Ranuculas and anemone are some of my favorite flowers. Which reminds me of this quote:

But a weed is simply a plant that wants to grow where people want something else. In blaming nature, people mistake the culprit. Weeds are people’s idea, not nature’s. ~Author Unknown

Anemone hupehensis Pamina cropped logo

Anemone hupehensis var. japonica ‘Pamina’ in Flagler Garden.

Anemone x hybrida 'Whirlwind'

Anemone x hybrida ‘Whirlwind’


by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

We’ve had many fall blooms popping up like crazy in the past few weeks, but these are a few of my favorites! Enjoy.

camellia sasanqua polar ice bloom

Camellia sasanqua ‘Polar Ice’

Camellia sasanqua 'Setsugekka'

Camellia sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’

Sunflowers & the Conservatory photo by Cathy Hoyt

Sunflowers & the Conservatory photo by Cathy Hoyt

Cathy Hoyt, Guest Blogger & Member, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

September was my first anniversary as a Member of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. I was a bit hesitant at first. Should I join? Should I wait a bit longer?? Will I use it?? I just wanted to post that my membership has been of the best gifts I have ever given myself. The Garden has been a classroom of sorts where I have learned so much about about the cycles of nature, wildlife and of course the never ending variety of flowers, trees and foliage that is ever present and ever changing. It has presented me with so many beautiful moments to capture with my camera…and offered me a “learning ground” for photography. Most of all it is my No. 1 stress reducer!! Ahh, tough day? I just drive over for an hour and relax. Thank you Lewis Ginter and to all the wonderful staff that makes this Garden the best!

by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Turtle water lily best

Just hanging out with the water lilies!


by Alex Arzt, Exhibit Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

In conjunction with Every Tree Tells a Story, the photography exhibit in the Kelly Education Center’s Ginter Gallery II, we’re  highlighting a few special trees in the Garden. One of my favorite trees here is the Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) in the Margaret Streb Conifer Garden.

the sycamore in streb garden

The sycamore in Streb Garden, at the north end of Lake Sydnor, before it was Streb Garden.

Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin B. White, Jr. donated this garden in memory of Mrs. White’s mother, Margaret Streb. The garden was designed and installed by the garden staff in 1996. It is located at the far end of the lake, under the spreading branches of this elegant old sycamore. Though the garden was planted almost 20 years ago, the sycamore has stood on the property for much longer.

This photograph from our archives was taken in 1995 on the edge of Sydnor Lake before the conifer garden was planted. This sycamore has seen a lot! In its time here, the landscape has evolved, and this tree  is a living reminder of the vast histories enclosed within our ever-resilient trees. This photograph for me represents the transformational power of gardening and also how much Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden has grown in its relatively short history of 30 years. Compare this photo to one of the Streb Garden today:

streb garden in 2014

The Streb Garden today.

The sycamore is easy to spot among the conifers because of its large canopy and its characteristic white crown, which is most visible in the fall and winter. The distinguishing feature of this tree is its mottled exfoliating bark which flakes off in irregular sheets leaving the surface with patterns like pieces of a puzzle.

In May the sycamore bears small flowers in dense heads and after fertilization the fruits grow into one-inch balls. They hang from stringy stalks which dangle from the tree all winter then fall apart in early spring to disperse the seeds. The oldest known sycamores reach 400 years old. We can only hope this one will still be standing in 2350.

And don’t forget, our #TREEstory Instagram contest continues until Nov. 2, 2014.  Whether it’s right here in the garden or in your neighborhood, every tree tells its own story and we’d love to see and read about your tree story in our contest.

The Every Tree Tells a Story exhibition at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is on loan from The Cultural Landscape Foundation, and has been made possible with generous support from presenting sponsor, The Davey Tree Expert Company.

by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Next week’s Making Beauty Sustainable: The Charles F. Gillette Forum  opens up some great questions about how, as a community, we will design our gardens for the future. As part of this discussion, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is  bringing in four experts, with different ideas about how to tackle these big real world issues: balancing the desire for native plantings, non-natives that have graced our landscapes for years, and the uncertainty of the future climate.

By examining the critical processes of plant ecology and applying them to landscape and planting design, we hope to inspire a dialogue about how to responsibly design, install, and manage our green spaces to mitigate climate change.

This is a topic that’s important in large-scale commercial design, but as Doug Tallamy  and others have pointed out, it’s just as important in the hundreds of thousands of backyards in this world. So whether you are a commercial landscape designer or a avid backyard gardener, we welcome you to join the conversation with the experts next Thursday evening and all day on Friday. The conversation will be lively,  and we promise you will learn something too!

Speakers include Sheila Brady, principal, Oehme van Sweden and Associates, Inc., Travis Beck, author of Principles of Ecological Design and Director of Horticulture, Mt. Cuba Center Inc., landscape designer, teacher, GroundedDesign blogger Thomas Rainer, and  Adrian Higgins, garden writer and editor at The Washington Post.

Here are a few excerpts from our featured speakers to get you thinking about sustainable design and the future of gardening.

Sheila Brady  Portrait

Sheila Brady

On Sheila Brady’s work:  The garden [New York Botanical Garden’s new native plant garden] rejects a conventional idea of presenting native flora as replicated eco-systems and instead gathers American plants with a gardener’s eye for color, texture, combinations, seasonal peaks and other aesthetic ambitions. The planting schemes are complex, and besides the mind-boggling number of plants involved — 90,000 perennials, grasses, bulbs, shrubs and trees in a 31 / 2-acre area — Brady and her collaborators have used varieties bred for improved garden performance.

Adrian Higgins  photo by Deb Lindsey Photography.

Adrian Higgins, photo by Deb Lindsey Photography.

From Adrian Higgins: 

In an age of environmental woe — climate change, habitat loss, threats to beloved pollinators — should we change the role and the look of our gardens?

and this on dry gardens: 

One of the most beautifully planted and instructive dry gardens remains the Gravel Garden at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa. Here a whole hillside has been converted into a series of landings through a sea of perennials, herbs and grasses. Dry gardens come into their own in late summer. At Chanticleer that has meant a September when the feather reed grass is a rich wheat color against the repeated drifts of the purple aster variety called October Skies. These are just two of dozens of herbaceous plants that carry special appeal in late season, including the wispy grass called nassella, goldenrods, other asters, yuccas, salvias and perhaps some lingering hardy ice plant varieties…..

The other great aspect of the dry garden is that bulbs love it; they get the baking they need during summer dormancy to flourish and multiply. This mimics the conditions of their arid, upland habitats of Asia Minor.

T Beck

Travis Beck

From Travis Beck:

Landscapes are critical to our well-being. From cloud-strewn rangeland to urban streetscapes, they feed and shelter, nurture and amaze us.

In all landscapes, human action and natural processes combine. Wilderness is now designated, no longer de facto. In even the most tended garden myriad insects and seedlings appear.

Successful, sustainable landscapes result when we align our efforts with natural processes. Such landscapes flourish without constant care and support life within and beyond their boundaries.

A network of these landscapes could serve our needs, restore ecological function, conserve biodiversity, and be a delight to inhabit. Such a network can only be built piece by piece. As designers and managers of landscapes, that is our work.

Thomas Rainer

Thomas Rainer

From Thomas Rainier:

This year on this blog, I have started to celebrate the idea and expression of contemporary naturalistic design. I have made the claim that naturalistic design may be in a golden era. To show the diversity and complexity of this idea, I plan to highlight the work of several leading practitioners.
But my enthusiasm was given pause this week after reading Michael King’s thoughtful essay “Never New Gardening.” Michael makes the claim that when it comes to the New Perennial movement (and other gardening movements generally), there is nothing new under the sun.

Here at the Garden we are changing our practices too. Two great examples of that are the new Cherry Tree Walk around Lake Sydnor featuring bountiful native plantings and grasses around the water’s edge that will help filter water before it enters the lake.  At the Conservatory, we replaced 9,000 square feet of turf with 2,000 native grasses that encourage wildlife and are better for the environment. As we continue to build new garden areas look for this sort of sustainable landscaping to continue at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. We hope that we inspire you to rethink your yard too.

Interested in joining the conversation? Register now, a limited number of spaces are still available for Making Beauty Sustainable: The Charles F. Gillette Forum.

The Garden would also like to thank Presenting Sponsor: 3north, and Supporting Sponsor: The Davey Tree Expert Company, Inc. and The Care of Trees for their generosity in supporting the Gillette Forum.

The Charles F. Gillette Forum on Landscape Design honors the legacy of Charles F. Gillette, a leader in the field of landscape architecture, by engaging the public and the design profession in a conversation about the importance of landscape design and the value of Gillette’s ideals of elegance, superb craftsmanship, and seamless blending of architecture and garden.

Follow up the Gillette Forum by touring some of Richmond’s important urban landscapes during the first What’s Out There Weekend Richmond, presented by The Cultural Landscape Foundation, October 25 and 26. Tours are free, but registration is required.


by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Fothergilla Suzanne

Fothergilla gardenii ‘Suzanne’

Fothergilla gardenii ‘Suzanne’ is a native with a very interesting bloom. In fall, the green leaves turn orange-red. It’s a beauty for sure. You’ll find these along the edge of Lake Sydnor, just down from the Rose Garden.

by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

ephemeral art

Senior Horticulturist Elizabeth Fogel’s fairy art including elephant’s ear, zinnia & crepe myrtle in Grace Arents Garden.

Have you noticed “fairy art” around the Garden recently? We’re feeling a bit whimsical and inspired by our blooms these days.

Director of Horticulture Grace Chapman explains, “A few months ago, I challenged the staff to ‘play’ in their gardens. I wanted them to have the freedom to create little art pieces that would last a day or two using materials from their gardens. We weren’t going to tell anyone when we were doing these or where they would be located, it was just a fun thing that visitors could discover. When I worked at Temple University, I often found little art pieces that the students left for us. Those were the inspiration for this staff project.”

Senior Horticulturist, Elizabeth Fogel says, “The one I did last week was inspired by the fact that I was getting ready to rip the plants out for the fall!”

This “bedding change-out” is something we do twice a year, in fall when we compost the summer annuals and plant fall bulbs, and at the end of spring, when we clear out spent bulbs to plant summer annuals.

Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) pods on the stump of an Ash tree

Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) pods on the stump of an Ash tree at Ambler Arboretum at Temple University. Photo by Grace Chapman.

“The one I made last week was inspired by the fact that I was getting ready to pull the annuals out for the fall. I had been looking at the elephant ears and thinking that they would make a nice backdrop/container for making a little arrangement.  I love the idea of visitors discovering them and imaging that a garden fairy (or some other form of magic) made them.  It’s a fun way to try different plant and color combinations and a quick way to add a little more creativity into my day.”

I love how these projects recycle items that would otherwise go straight to the compost pile. We hope that they inspire you to make something beautiful in your world.

Please remember that the ephemeral art at the Garden is a staff project. At Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden we have a no collecting policy for plant material in the Garden, including picking flowers.


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