Snow clings to the boughs of the tall evergreens out back, glittering white chitons on the feather branches that droop under its wet weight. The deciduous trees, naked and twiggy, look like someone pulled a liner brush globbed with titanium white paint across the top of every branch.
The flower bed sleeps under a thick layer of fluffy white batting. Brave ornamental grasses burst through the blanket and wave in the building breeze. The snow has ended and the rain will soon begin.
Grasses have become my new favorite plants in the garden. Prior to last year, I wanted every plant to have flowers. And I don’t mean the delicate, feathery seed head plumes of grasses, I mean bold, colorful, petally, showy flowers, gobs of them. I wanted flowers everywhere, nevermind the riot they create.
I’ve never been good at subtlety. Everything I do is obvious, and my garden is no different. My husband and daughter go for foliage, but foliage never interested me. Foliage is not flowers, leaves are not obvious, and I figured if I don’t even notice it other than as background, what good is special foliage unless it is feeding caterpillars?
Last year that changed. I would look out back at my carefully planned flower beds and see that I’d planted according to flower color, but hadn’t taken foliage into account. When I looked at the overall effect, it wasn’t one of harmony like I expected. Sure, the flowers were harmonious in pinks and lavendars, but the foliage was all wrong. Silver blue rounded leaves of the rue, which appeared as blue-grey mounds from the deck, clashed with the yellow green leaves of salvias, milkweed, and veronica. Because the foliage makes up the bulk of the vista from far away, it just looked bad.
Around the same time I noticed this, I saw a Mexican feather grass at the nursery. It was delicate, and wispy, and graceful, and I thought how pretty it would look in the wind. I thought all of this and I could not live without it.
I bought it, and planted it, and watched it every day from the porch, in the soft morning light, in the harsh direct sun of mid-day, in the slanting golden light of day’s end, on calm days when the slightest puff of air would wave the tops of its tresses, and on windy days that blew its green strands like the wind on a boat ride blows my hair across my face.
And that was when I truly came to appreciate foliage.
After that feather grass, I bought almost every ornamental grass I could get my hands on. On the $5 clearance rack, Lowes had grasses call Wind Dancers. Wind Dancers! I bought four. I bought native switchgrasses, prairie dropseeds, blue fescues, Karl Foersters. I bought blue grammas, and purple loveseeds, and more of the golden green Mexican feather grasses. Each winter, I started little bluestem from from seed, and I put them in the ground as little green sprouts in spring. Little bluestem is blue green all summer and then turns a blazing copper in fall.
Each grass has its own flower plume near the end of summer. Some look like golden feathers, others like airy clouds. All bob daintily atop slender stems. But what I love best about the grasses are the way they capture light and the way they move. Their narrow blades catch the golden glow of the evening sun, and it’s so beautiful I could cry. In their response to air movement, they make the invisibile visible. They sway and dance in light air; they flutter and flap and bend when it’s heavy. They show swirls of wind we would not otherwise see.
Grasses do not call attention to themselves. Their beauty comes from their grace and quiet strength. When all the showy flowers have faded in the garden, and the leaves of trees and perennials have shriveled and dropped, the grasses simply change to a color that better reflects the low light of shorter days. They sway like strands of gold poking up through the snow, and dance to show how the invisible air moves, and they bend but do not break when battered by gales and weighted by burdens of snow and ice.