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A Go-To Plant
by Patrice Peltier - posted 10/09/13


Sesleria autumnalis

Is there something in your wardrobe, a go-to outfit that you throw on when you need to look good and don’t have time to put a lot of thought into it? I’d be lost without those reliable clothes in my closet. In my garden, that role is filled by Sesleria autumnalis. This grass is commonly called autumn moor grass. I call it “friend.”

Years ago, I became a fan of tall, stately ornamental grasses. I loved the way ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Overdam’ feather reed grass (Calamagrastis x acutiflora) created vertical accents in my garden and the architectural quality of the statuesque Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and the larger-than-life grasses, such as Miscanthus floridulus.

As people started promoting the smaller ornamental grasses, however, my reaction was “eh.” Why plant a 2-foot tall green blob when you could have something with a colorful flower? Sesleria autumnalis changed my mind, but I admit it wasn’t love at first sight.

I kept seeing the sesleria in display gardens and hearing plantsmen praise its versatility. Eventually I started to see their point. I tried it in my own garden, and here’s what I discovered: It’s just like my go-to outfit.

True, it doesn’t have a brightly colored flower like an iris or a daisy or a rose. But it adds form and texture in a way that makes all the other plants look good. You can use it to create a visual resting space between plants, to prop up wobbly neighbors, or to create rhythm by repeating it throughout your planting. It’s attractive when planted in masses as a ground cover, in groups of three or five, or even as a specimen in a small space.

I had seen sesleria used effectively as an edging plant along a walk. I didn’t have a walk, so I tried using it in the front of a perennial border surrounded by lawn. That was a mistake. My husband was never sure which grass he was supposed to mow and which he wasn’t. Need I say more?

A cool-season grass that holds its color into January, Seslaria autumnalis has narrow, fine-textured leaves that are blue on the top surface and green underneath. It grows in a tidy mound 1 foot or more tall and wide. In five years, that mound might spread to 15 inches wide, but this is a polite plant that stays where you put it and doesn’t go flinging seeds around, messing up your garden plan.

Like a go-to outfit, sesleria is adaptable to many cultural conditions. Originally from the rocky, windswept moors of Europe, this plant is tough. It grows in full sun as well as part shade, so you can mix it with salvias and with hostas. It isn’t fussy about soil, it can handle moist conditions and, once established, it’s fairly drought tolerant.

And it actually does have attractive flowers if your taste runs to understated elegance. In late August, the plant sends up flower stalks about 18 inches tall, creating a see-through effect. The flower spikes start out greenish white, turning light brown as we move into fall.

Since I’m as lazy about tending my garden as I am about planning my wardrobe, I love how low maintenance this plant is. There’s no staking, no deadheading. You’re not even supposed to cut it back until spring — and then not all the way to the ground — because it dies if you do that. Sometimes I don’t bother to cut it back at all. I just let the new foliage grow up through the old stuff.  Oh, and if you’re going to divide sesleria, it’s recommended to do so in spring. Because of its semi-evergreen foliage, dividing it in fall can stress it as it goes into winter.

Whether your taste runs to a little black dress or a comfy pair of jeans, when it comes to a plant that will make your garden look good without a lot of muss and fuss, try my go-to plant: Sesleria autumnalis.

From Chicagoland Volume XIX Issue IV. Photo courtesy of Roy Diblik.

 


Patrice Peltier is a contributing writer for State-by-State Gardening magazines.