The Perennial Plant Association announced earlier this year that Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is their perennial plant winner for 2014. People new to gardening or gardeners unfamiliar with perennial grasses will find Northwind has a dependable landscape history and has solidly transitioned from the prairie to small backyard gardens.
Gardeners use species ornamental grasses that thrive with other prairie plants in many landscapes. Some ornamental grasses like Panicum, which is a switchgrass, prove aggressive for smaller spaces such as those in backyard gardens.
Roy Diblik, a plantsman from Wisconsin, developed Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ to mix well with other perennials in residential gardens. Professional landscapers, growers and home gardeners have successfully grown the ornamental grass in varying regions even beyond the Midwest.
Growing Ornamental Grass in a Small Backyard Garden
Panicum virgatum is a perennial warm season ornamental grass that is a prairie native in the Midwestern United States. Switchgrass, the common name for Panicum virgatum, has an aggressive reputation in landscapes. For gardeners, plants with an aggressive nature may cause crowding in a garden bed.
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is one of several cultivars of the species that offers a diminished size and seasonal color. Northwind grows 4’ – 6’ tall in a stiff upright fashion. The flowers bloom in early fall and shines up autumn gardens with a golden color.
Beyond needing full sun and cold hardy in zones 4 – 9, Panicum ‘Northwind’ tolerates standing water with its feet temporarily wet, making it a good candidate for a rain garden. The Northwind plant self-seeds and offers cover and visual interest in winter; this ornamental grass is a good choice for a garden planted to attract birds but does not offer foraging material deer prefer.
Gardeners should plan for a spread of 24” – 36.” The limited span helps gardeners estimate spacing when used as a focal point or in mass drifts of mixed combinations in the garden.
Roy Diblik Develops Northwind Grass for Gardens
In a communication with Decoded Plants writer, Chris Eirschele, Diblik said, “I have some areas planted with Panicum ‘Northwind’ that have Coreopsis verticillata ‘Golden Showers’ and Ratibida pinnata mingled through. The vertical habit of Northwind makes it easier to drift the plants within the scattered groups of Panicum.”
Diblik used Coreopsis ‘Golden Showers’ in his book, Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance™ Approach in many of his examples of plant combinations. Ratibida pinnata bears the common nickname of a gray head coneflower native in the Midwest prairies. Native plant gardeners may also know Ratibida by the common term yellow coneflower, although that common name could prove confusing as there are some Echinacea perennials referenced this way, too.
Diblik’s happenstance of collecting seed in 1982, near railway tracks in South Elgin, Illinois, has turned into a plant discovery that gardeners of all stripes now enjoy.
Diblik is co-owner of Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin. It is a garden shop and nursery surrounded by swaths of demonstration garden beds planted in Diblik’s signature plant groupings. Locals know the garden shop as a destination to find inspiration for their gardens and horticultural students know it as a place to learn how to grow plants.
Who is The Perennial Plant Association
The Perennial Plant Association began in Columbus, Ohio, with Dr. Steven Still when he was professor of landscape horticulture at the Ohio State University. It was in 1983, when the organization first sponsored a perennial symposium. Today, the Perennial Plant Association is a large trade organization made up of landscapers, growers, educators and others who have special interests in perennial plants.
Each year, the organization’s members vote from a selection of perennial plants. The members choose based on how wide a range of climate conditions in which the plant may thrive, whether the plant displays multiple seasons of ornamental interest, and whether it thrives with a low maintenance system of care and its degree of disease and pest resistance.
Mixing Warm and Cold Season Ornamental Grasses
Gardeners choosing ornamental grasses for their garden will benefit from understanding the differences between warm and cold season grasses. Each type impacts how they play off other plants; the sequence of growth and flowering the plants bring to a garden.
Warm season grasses begin slowly growing in spring. The flowers will open late in summer or early fall. Some cultivars, for instance in Panicum virgatum, may exhibit colors around the same time. Warm season grasses like hot summer growing conditions and will do well in gardens that often face drought situations.
Cold season grasses respond to early spring weather. As their name implies, these ornamental grasses green early and bloom in late spring through early summer. Cold season grasses slow down during summer’s heat and come back in fall.
Northwind and Other Panicum for Small Backyard Gardens
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ was named the perennial plant winner for 2014. It is part of a long list of perennial plants tested by trials and then voted on by plant professionals over the years. Gardeners who grow perennial plants in small backyard gardens will find ideas on this list to fit their needs.
Cultivars of Panicum virgatum include Shenandoah with maroon foliage and growth shorter than Northwind, Heavy Metal with denser foliage and Ruby Ribbons with a deeper wine color than Shenandoah. These ornamental grasses are appropriate for small backyard gardens.