Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Visit to Willow Farm Grasses

I began my walk around Willow Farm Grasses in what appeared to be a wildflower meadow. 

Later I found out that the original plan for this open field was to develop a hardwood forest bordered by irises and yellow Rudbeckia. 

But on the warm hazy day in late August, when I visited the nursery, the wildflowers and tall grasses obscured any sign of the young native hardwood trees.

I have to say that there was something about this flower-filled meadow that felt so relaxed and free. 

Most cultivated spaces are meticulously edited and are ruthlessly governed by gardeners like myself. Left to her own devices, Nature is by contrast, so much more welcoming! 

I don't know that I will ever hand my garden over entirely to Nature, but sometimes I marvel at how easy gardening would be if I were to do so...

The reddish tassels of the tall Miscanthus purpurascens have a slight metallic sheen 
that glistens in the sunshine.

Spotted Knapweed, Centaurea stoebe is a non-native member of the Asteracea family.

Willow Farm Grasses, located in the tiny village of Bognor, is a pleasant drive north of Toronto. I asked Karen Young, one of the enterprise's two partners, to tell me a bit about the nursery.

"Willow Farm Grasses," says Karen,"is an almost 50 acre piece of land that is shaped like a long rectangular bowl. (The Big Head River flows through the bottom of the bowl on its way to Georgian Bay via Meaford.) 

"My partner Caroline and I had always wanted a farm where we could develop a plant business of some kind. After outgrowing our Guelph gardens, we developed a check list of must-have's for the move: A farmhouse with some character, lots of land, and water on the property. A two-year search lead us to Bognor, a place neither of us had heard of before. We took a leap of faith and bought the farm. It's been the best decision we ever made."

The window boxes that add a splash of color to the front of the greenhouse are actually old ammunition boxes.

They are filled with a mix of Coleus, blue-flowering Lobelia, white Alyssum 
and Sweet Potato Vine.

After my walk through the meadow, I toured the nursery beds where ornamental grasses are grown in great huge blocks. The softness of the tall grasses as you walk through them and the rustling sound they made in the breeze was late summer magic.

I asked Karen what it was about grasses that made her want to create a nursery devoted to them.

"It is hard to say why I love grasses so much," she replied,"At first, I was smitten by their texture, form, colour, and movement. But the more I have worked with grasses, the better my understanding has become of the many ways they enhance the garden landscape."

"Grasses can act as the traffic signs leading you through a garden. A drift of low growing grasses can direct you along a winding path. A bright variegated grass can call you to explore the back of a garden.  A specimen in the border, can provide a textual contrast enhancing the virtues of surrounding perennials and shrubs. The incredible beauty and versatility of these plants, in my mind, is unmatched."

Japanese Blood Grass, Imperata cylindrica

Next year I hope to make my own gardenbed where ornamental grasses are a key feature. I asked Karen for some advice on how to begin:

"The best thing you can do for ornamental grasses is is get them off to a good start. This means selecting the right grass for the right site. Once that has been established, the following pointers should be kept in mind:

• Amend the planting hole with compost or composted manure.... if the new plant is a division from a larger plant, then bonemeal can be added to the mix as well."

• Sun-loving grasses require a minimum of six hours a day to perform well. Average soil with good drainage will suffice for the vast majority of varieties. 

• Do not over fertilize ! Too much nitrogen can cause soft growth and taller grasses will be prone to falling over when stressed with the wind or heavy rain."

Karen's List of Grasses for Sunny locations:

Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue'
                         'Sea Urchin '

Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio'
                                 'Gold Bar'

Switch grass, Panicum virgatum 'Blood Brothers'

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln'

Blue Oat Grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens

Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium

Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepsis

Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Soft-stem Bulrush, Scirpus validus  

Soft-stem Bulrush, Scirpus validus is a wetland plant that can form large colonies in marshes, streams and ponds. The stems are topped with a hanging inflorescence. Like all bulrushes, it provides food for birds. Height: 1.5- 2.4 meters (5-8 feet), Spread:1.2-1.5 meters (4-5 ft). 

Karen's List of Grasses that are Shade Tolerant:

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Chasmanthium latifolium

Hystrix patula

Molinia caerulea 'Variegata'

Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold'
                                  'Aureola '
Carex sp.  'Everest'
                  'Banana Boat'

While the majority of the land that surrounds the nursery is open and sunny, the area adjacent to the house is the exception. 

Here mature trees shelter the house from winter winds. They also create the perfect conditions for a shade garden.

Hostas and Ferns are happy in the shady area next to the front of the house.

To the left of the house, the area opens up once again to the sun.

In the distance is an interesting native plant. Grow Silphium Perfoliatum not for the yellow flowers (which are rather unremarkable), but for the plant's huge stature and it's unique, cup-shaped foliage. 

The leaves of Silphium Perfoliatum form a "cup" around a central stem giving the plant its common name Cup Flower. To the delight of birds and insects, rainwater collects in this shallow leaf basin. In the fall, Goldfinches love to devour the seeds.

Cup Flower, Silphium Perfoliatum likes full sun and moist soil best. Height: 120-240 cm ( up to 8'), Spread: 60-90 cm. USDA Zones: 4-8.

At the side of the house there is a small flagstone patio. 

Grasses make great foundation plants. They are far more practical than traditional conifers that can become huge and unmanageable.

To the left and right side of the picture are clumps of  Silver Spike Grass or Frost Grass, Spodiopogon sibiricus. In the middle (near the red door) is Autumn Flame Grass, Miscanthus purpurascens.

Silver Spike Grass or Frost Grass, Spodiopogon sibiricus has dense foliage that looks a bit like bamboo. It is native to the grasslands of central China, the grassy mountains of Japan and northeastern Siberia. Silver Spike Grass grows poorly in hot, dry locations. It likes moist, well-drained fertile soil. Full sun. Height: 90-150 cm (3-5 feet) Spread: 90-100 cm (1.5-2 feet) USDA zones: 5-9.

Autumn Flame Grass, Miscanthus purpurascens forms a clump of upright green leaves that turn flaming orange-red in autumn (particularly in warmer zones). Tall spikes of pinkish-red flowers fade to be silvery plumes that can last through the winter. Full sun or light shade. Height: 120-150 cm (4-5 feet), Spread: 75-90 cm (2.5- 3 feet) USDA zones: 5-9.

One of the great things about Karen and Caroline's farm are the views of the rolling hills of Grey County. In a few weeks time, the trees will look spectacular dressed in their fall colors.

While it's pretty, Obedient Plant, Physostegia virginiana is a perennial  that spreads aggressively. Consider carefully before you plant it. Karen and Caroline have planted it all on its own.

Giant Reed Grass, Arundo donax Variegatain in the foreground.

Giant Reed, Arundo Donax 'Variegata' is a warm-season grass that has grey-green foliage streaked with bands of cream. It likes moist soil and will even grow in standing water. In frost-free areas it will remain evergreen (USDA zones 9-11), but in more northern zones, it will die back to the ground in winter (zones 6-7). Height: 12-15 ft (3.6-4.7 m), Spread: 8-10 ft (2.4-3 m). USDA zones: 6-10.

A pathway takes you from the nursery to a terrace with a stunning view of the surrounding countryside.

Phlox paniculata

Pennisetum orientale  'Karley Rose' on the left.

Pennisetum orientale  'Karley Rose' has smoky, purple, bottlebrush spikes that glow when backlit by the sun. This grass forms a mound of arching foliage and is more cold tolerant than many other varieties of Pennisetum. Once established it needs only occasional watering. Full sun. Height: 75-90 cm (2.5-3 feet), Spread: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet). USDA zones: 5-10.

Many readers will look at these pictures of wide open spaces and be think that grasses are for large gardens only. Not at all!

"Many grasses would indeed overwhelm a small suburban garden, so selecting the right variety is key, " says Karen,"Luckily, there is still a great number from which to choose if scale/space are a concern."

I'd add that a grass is a great substitute for a shrub. I'd consider using an ornamental grass anywhere you might use a shrub. Grasses can have a light, airy appearance (Switchgrass, Calamagrostis is a great example). In a small garden this see-through quality can make a grass seem less big and bulky than a shrub.

Echinacea pallida

Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum

Red Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah' forms an upright clump and has foliage streaked with maroon. Tiny reddish flowers appear in August and are attractive all winter. Trim back to 4 or 5 inches above the ground in spring. Full sun. Non-invasive, clump forming grass. Height: 80-90 cm (31-35 inches), Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches) USDA Zones: 4-9.

Drought Tolerant Grasses:

Andropogon gerardii

Bouteloua gracilis

Calamagrostis sp.

Festuca glauca

Miscanthus sinensis

Panicum sp.

Schizachyrium scoparium

Sesleria caerulea 

Sporobolus heterolepsis

An old outbuilding and the remains of a barn's foundation in the field below the terrace.

Two grasses set against the foundation of the old barn: Autumn Flame Grass, Miscanthus purpurascens and Blue Lyme Grass, Leymus arenaria.

Blue Lyme Grass, Leymus arenaria has steely, blue-grey foliage and is a spreading grass that needs some control. One of the ways to use it is to put it in a large container. Arching tan spikes appear in the summer. Cut the foliage to the ground in fall or early spring. Very drought tolerant. Full sun. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches) USDA Zones: 4-9.

I also asked Karen for a bit of seasonal advice. Here's what she has to say:

"I cut back all my grasses in the spring. With pruners, trim to a brush-cut-like appearance approximately 6 to 8 inches above the ground.  (I prefer to cutback grasses in the springtime because then I can enjoy the movement, colour and texture of the grasses throughout the winter. Also, the grasses provide shelter and seed for wildlife). 

"Grasses with semi ever-green foliage, such as blue fescue and blue oat grass, should be "combed" with a leaf rake in the spring. There is often a skirt of dead foliage lying against the soil with these varieties. This too should be removed."


Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora' or PeeGee Hydrangea, a Spirea (peeking into the foreground on the left), and Japanese Blood Grass,  Imperata cylindrica (on the right)."Thanks to lack of moisture and some robust pruning by the deer, this hydrangea has remained small," Karen says.

I had a wonderful afternoon wandering around the garden at Willow Farm Grasses. And of course I had to bring a little something home with me for my own garden.

If you'd like to visit the nursery and garden, now is one of the best times to do it. The grasses are at their best and autumn color can only make the hills of Grey County all the more spectacular.

More Information:

Willow Farm Grasses
597326 Grey Rd. 29
Bognor, ON

Willow Farm Grasses is a 48 acre hobby farm in the Big Head River Valley. The gardens and nursery are home to 95 varieties of ornamental grasses. Visitors are welcome to wander around the garden, which features perennials and display beds. There are also winding trails that lead to the river. Nursery plants are for sale to the public. Group and bus tours are welcome.

Open: 9am-5pm Friday-Sunday, May 19th to Oct 22nd


  1. Beautiful combinations! Love that patio too.

    1. Thanks Anne. I like that little area by the back door too. I am sure it must be nice to sit there and look out at the garden.

  2. Thank you so much for this post! What a gorgeous farm. Just today KBJ & I planted some Pink Muhly Grass. I don't have a lot of full sun places to plant grasses, but I love them so much. I appreciate the names you provided for some options I can consider for some semi-shade areas. Great post.

    1. Thanks Charisse! I am glad you enjoyed the post and found a little bit of inspiration for your own garden.

  3. Caroline and Karen have done such a beautiful job with this. Everything looks so lovingly done, and it is absolutely gorgeous.

    Thank you for sharing this here, Jennifer.
    Have a wonderful week ahead!


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