by Paula Panich
After five years in the Northeast, I’m still on the lookout for plants that will remind me of the desert, where I lived for many years. I first saw several low, tufted blue fescue grasses in a friend’s garden on a hillside near Cummington, Massachusetts a couple of years ago; I’m afraid my thinking didn’t go beyond: It’s blue! It’s a grass! It might appear desert-like in my garden!
For a few months, wherever I went, I thought I was espying ” blue fescue” grass — on a mesa in southern Utah; near a pre-Pueblan cave site near Los Alamos, New Mexico; even in Scottsdale, Arizona. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This was unexamined enthusiasm for a host of far bigger, native desert bluish grasses, related only, perhaps, by family to blue fescues.
Festuca glauca is native to Europe; it’s found in the Alps, in southern France, and sweeps through Central Europe into the Caucasus, according to nurseryman Kurt Bluemel, who credits F. glauca with sparking his fifty-year love affair with grasses. In the late 1950s, Bluemel was a young apprentice working in a nursery outside Zurich. He recalls the day “a little piece of Festuca glauca broke off a plant,” and being young and ambitious, he gave it a try in the ground himself. “It was easy to grow, ” he says, and this small plant division was the beginning of his life’s work with ornamental grasses.
At the Zurich nursery, he met a young American, Richard Simon. After a year in Zurich, Simon returned to Bluemount Nursery, in Monkton, Maryland, the wholesale nursery his father had started in 1926. Kurt Bluemel came to the United States to work at Bluemount in 1960, and together, they began, in a small way, to import about 30 varieties of ornamental grasses from Switzerland.
“Coming to the United States was a cultural and horticultural shock,” says Bluemel. There were virtually no grasses and few perennials in gardens. By the mid-60s, ornamental grasses were just being introduced into the gardening palette, such as festuca and miscanthus. There were some grasses in the U.S. before that, but they were gathering dust on old estates and in botanical gardens.”
Festucas belong to the grass family, with about 300 species. “Fescues are often important, fine-textured constituents of lawns; however, most ornamental garden species are tufted clump-formers valued for various shades of blue-green or glaucous-blue foliage,” according to writer and horticulture consultant Rick Darke in his 1999 book, The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, (Timber Press). In the past, according to Darke, there has been a great deal of confusion as to which species the common blue fescue cultivars should represent. In Darke’s book, they are assigned to F. glauca, and other horticulturists interviewed for this article defer to Darke’s research.
Most of the F. glauca cultivars are short, compact, and are blue, silvery blue, blue-green, and green. Although small, the blue fescues still deliver the playfulness of light, form, silhouette and movement in the garden that all grasses bring. Darke, in a recent interview, calls them “neat little urchins.” They are low growing, tufted, neat, and fine-textured. Grown in groups or sweeps, or as groundcover, they appear rich and lush. Singly, among a great many architecture-less and full perennial plantings, they haven’t much to say.
There is something satisfying in combing this fine foliage of fallen leaves in autumn, restoring plant to a presentable, tidy appearance as its companion perennials fade nearby. They are mostly evergreen, and a fine sight poking up through a moderate snowfall.
Last year, I bought four plants, F. glauca ‘Blausilber’, and put them in a straight line against a sharply defined right angled walkway, as I hadn’t decided what where they were to go. The result was a lovely softening of this sharp edge. As they are low growing, they are good in low settings, good for not only edges but for holding spaces, as they give a grass-like appearance.
In Darke’s book, there is a photograph of F. glauca handsomely triangulated with yucca and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy.’ In my own garden, my four sliver-blue-leafed rather bristly ‘Blausilbers’ (8 inches) will be joined by at least a dozen others near a Miscanthus sinesis ‘Gracillimus’, maiden grass, and a curved sweeping combination of Salvia ‘Blue Hill’ and a catmint. (It may be a bust, but I’m going to try it; if it doesn’t work, the salvia and catmint will go.)
Although differences among varieties may be almost indiscernible to the eye, variations in color are remarkable when sweeps of cultivars are planted side by side.
Most blue fescues are hardy to Zone 4, but they are picky. They don’t like wet heat, extreme dry heat, too much rainfall, heavy soils, or soils that are too rich. “They are useless in the Pacific Northwest,” says Dan Hinkley of Heronswood Nursery on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State. Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights in Raleigh, North Carolina, says they perish in the wet heat of his Piedmont area.
They do like good drainage, soil light in nutrients, and full sun. Mine are grown in mostly sand with added organic matter. They are drought-tolerant once established. Blue fescues should be cut down to the mound at the end of winter. Richard Simon, now retired from Bluemount Nursery (his daughter and son-in-law make it a third-generation business), suggests cutting off flowers after they appear. “If the panicles get heavy, they can split the plant,” he says.
If blue fescues are grown in soils that are too rich, their life cycles are speeded up. “They get pumped up,” says Rick Darke. They can’t repair themselves.”
Maintenance of blue fescues may involve replacing the plants every 3 to 5 years in soils inhospitable to their ideal cultivation. The plants tend to die out at the center, especially if subjected to extreme heat or an unusually wet winter. In Rick Darke’s own Pennsylvania garden, blue fescue last for 6-8 years. Kurt Bluemel reports he was astonished to see festuca succeed as a ground cover in Virginia (Zone 7) for 25 years, growing in full sun, with good drainage, among Mugo pines.
Fescues are good in rock gardens and troughs, adding color, texture, and strong form.
Although propagation by seed is not difficult, cultivars should be divided instead, to avoid variation.
In the last decade or so, blue fescue cultivars have been clearly defined and delineated. Many nurseries sell generic “blue fescue grass” which is more than likely clonal cultivars “adulterated,” as Darke puts it, “by seed propagation.” For the discerning gardener, the named cultivars of the various foliage color forms are important distinctions for the effect they will have in the garden.
Kurt Bluemel, Inc.’s 2000 Nursery Catalogue lists 17 named cultivars for Zones 4-8. The olive-green ‘Aprilgrun’ reaches 12 inches, while ‘Azurit’ of the same height, is silver blue. ‘Blaufink’ is 10 inches in height and is a soft blue, while ‘Blauglut,’ also 10 inches, is an electric blue. ‘Daumling’ or ‘Tom Thumb’ is a good ground cover, 4 inches tall and green-blue.
‘Elijah Blue’ is a very popular silvery blue variety which was discovered and named by Lois Woodhill of The Plantage Nursery, Cutchogue, Long Island, New York. Rick Darke recommends it as one of the longer-lived selections.
‘Frulingsblau’ is a 6-inch light blue; ‘Meerblau’ an 8 inch rich blue-green, which Darke calls “distinct and attractive.” ‘Silberreiher’ is a six-inch silvery blue. F. glauca ‘Superba’ grows to 10 inches, with amethyst stalks. Bluemel’s catalogue calls it the “best blue.”
Other Fescues for the Garden
To serve other purposes in the garden, the taller fescues, like Festuca mairei , are good mid-sized and long-lived grasses. “Handsome and under-appreciated,” Darke says of it. The Atlas fescue, as it is known, grows to 2 ½ feet, and is a neat mound of fresh gray-green. Hardy to Zone 5.
F. valesiaca , the Wallis fescue, is hardy in Zones 4-7 in the right conditions. ‘Glaucantha’ grows to four inches.
F. glauca ‘Golden Toupee’ (Zone 6) was spied in the Heronswood 2000 Catalogue, and its description of “tight and sturdy mounds of chartreuse yellow foliage no taller than 8 inches, adding a a spritz of light to a full sun border with well-drained soil.” A chartreuse yellow, F. glauca? Tony Avent supplied this plant to Heronswood; he in turn acquired it from Ron Strasko, owner of the Creek Hill Nursery in Leola, Pennsylvania. Strasko says his source for ‘Golden Toupee’ was a man who carried a pot of it back from England in the 1990s. The man in question didn’t respond to a telephone enquiry; nonetheless, if it does well in England, that’s why it will survive the foggy and damp Pacific Northwest.
Seslerias are a good alternative to blue fescues, according to Darke, if climatic and soil conditions will never suit the growing of the little urchins. Seslerias are also tufted, dense perennials with grassy texture but are easy to cultivate, tough, and long-lived. Sesleria caerulea, blue moor grass, is hardy to Zone 4, is low-growing, to 8 inches tall, and is evergreen to Zone 6. S. heufleria, blue-green moor grass, grows to 15 inches, and is less blue than blue moor grass.
Blue fescues are not for every gardener in every climate, with every soil condition. Yet stunning , subtle designs can be made with selected clonal varities. In the early days of ornamental grass production in the U.S., the renowned landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme was an eager customer of the grasses produced by Bluemont Nursery and then Kurt Bluemel, Inc.
From a designer’s standpoint, Kurt Bluemel says, one has to look at what will grow best in the circumstances, and what will hold up. He would recommend ‘Elijiah Blue’ in a cold climate, or a climate of high humidity.
But what of blue fescue’s reputation for fussiness and its maintenance requirements? “This is not pachysandra or ivy,” says Bluemel. It may have to be replanted. This is the art and joy, like raking the gravel in a Japanese garden. You do it as much as necessary, bringing horticulture to a new level.”
– Paula Panich
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the January 2001 issue of Nursery Management & Production.