Desperately Seeking Karl
When it comes to momentous, life-changing choices, I am nothing if not decisive. I had known my husband for precisely 5 months and 3 weeks when I married him. The decision to relocate to North Carolina took 30 minutes. We bought a house in two days.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, less earth-shaking decisions take me forever. A 15 minute run to the supermarket becomes an hour while I survey my options in the ice cream freezer. Deciding on a movie is an ordeal. But both of these pale in comparison to buying a plant.
I spent the better part of last fall and winter trying to make up my mind about 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass. I knew I loved it, but should I buy it? That was the question.
I had read somewhere that 'Karl Foerster' did not like extreme heat and humidity. Maybe that's why it isn't as common in the Raleigh area as Miscanthus. Maybe it wouldn't work out, and I would have wasted precious time that I could have invested in a relationship with a more appropriate plant.
Nor was I certain it was the right design choice for my side garden, which, having crossed the line from "exuberant" to "sloppy," was in need of a remodel. I was in the market for a vertical element, and 'Karl Foerster' fit the bill. With an upright habit and a height of 6 feet in bloom, it would definitely provide some much-needed structure. Supposedly it maintains its form and looks fabulous for nine months out of the year, which is more than most of us can say.
But maybe 'Karl Foerster' would look too rigid in my garden. Maybe I already had my strong vertical element: the side of the house. Maybe I needed my sloppy sprawlers to soften the harsh backdrop of the house.
Maybe maybe maybe.
Once I do make up my mind, however, I become positively obsessed. So in early March, when I finally concluded that 'Karl Foerster' was indeed The One, I had to have it instantly. Nor would I be satisfied with a puny specimen from a mail order nursery. I wanted immediate gratification, which meant I had to get my hands on a blooming size plant, ASAP.
As late winter is not the best time to go plant hunting, this was easier said than done. Most of the local nurseries I called had no 'Karl Foerster' in stock; could I check back in mid-April? No, I most certainly could not check back in mid-April. Finally I hit pay dirt. Yes, they had some Karl Foersters left over from last season - still dormant, of course, but gallon sized. Yes, they would hold them. Yes, I wanted all four.
My grasses are blooming now. Would you like to see them?
The best laid plans of mice and men, yada yada yada. Instead of Karl Foerster's amber waves of grain, I am now the proud owner of four mystery fountain grasses - I'm guessing 'Hameln,' but who cares. I blame human error rather than foul play; dormant ornamental grasses look a lot alike, and tags can easily fall out and be placed back in the wrong container. But the fact remains that, far from being tall and upright, my new additions are short and floppy - not exactly what I had in mind.
Maybe I should take this sorry episode as a sign that 'Karl Foerster' and I were never meant to be. Maybe my new fountain grasses will work just as well. If they are really are 'Hameln,' they are supposed to turn a golden bronze in the fall. That could be nice. On the other hand, maybe I should just rip them out and find some Karl Foersters while there's still time to get a positive ID.
Maybe maybe maybe.
8/2/2013 09:07:52 am
Glad you enjoyed it!
Very funny post! I can relate on many levels. I get impatient over any purchase if it is considered for more than 30 seconds: clothes, shoes, furniture, life insurance, new paint for the living room, etc. Judy is the opposite. For her the process of choosing is as important as the choice itself. But like you, I agonize over plant choices. I am especially adept at studying the texts of catalogs and plant books, teasing out all kinds of meanings hidden in a 75 word summary description.
8/2/2013 09:09:17 am
I do the same thing, with predictable results.
The fountain grass may not have the form you want but seeing 'Karl Foester' on the Internet is kind of like seeing him with beer googles.
8/2/2013 02:39:24 pm
Beer goggles - hmm. It's funny you mention that, since I was at a nursery today and saw a lone Karl Foerster. I was not impressed, and was rethinking everything I had ever believed about Karl. I was considering switchgrass and am now going to give them another look. What do you think of Shenandoah? I love the color, but am concerned it might flop.
8/2/2013 02:05:50 pm
For what it's worth, I prefer the Hameln. Have you thought about adding an agastache 'Blue Fortune' instead of a grass? It gets big and tall, adds great structure, and attracts hordes of pollinators. This also looks like a great spot for coneflowers, orange milkweed, liatris, one of the newer drought tolerant monarda, or a taller veronica. A big salvia greggi would do well there, too. :)
8/2/2013 02:42:14 pm
So it looks as if Karl does not have as many fans in the south. No wonder I hardly see him... I already have an agastache and a milkweed in this bed, and love them both (although the milkweed definitely sprawls). I could also play musical chairs with my monarda and salvia... But here we are back at all those choices!
8/3/2013 04:29:42 am
What about adding a small, flowering shrub? That might give you the structure and fullness you're looking for. Or you could add some Joe Pye Weed for height. BTW, I do the same thing with plants sometimes. I want it and I want it NOW! I ripped up a big patch of daylilies in the mid-afternoon heat last week and replaced them two dwarf spirea because I couldn't take the miserable-daylily-mess a single second longer. :)
8/3/2013 04:05:08 am
Well, what else can you do in a situation like this but laugh, right? Talk about the best laid plans ...
8/3/2013 06:02:22 am
Oh, my. Decisions, decisions. I am in the same spot with pink muhly grass. I have yet to find them, don't want to mail order, and yet I must - i must! - have them. So sorry your Karls turned out not to be Karls. :( What a downer. I say transplant the Hamelns to make way for "real" Karls. Otherwise, all you will ever see when you look at this bed is the missing Karls!
8/3/2013 09:08:24 am
I hear you on the pink muhly grass. It's gorgeous, and probably sold out of every nursery at this time of year. I actually saw Karl at a nursery yesterday. There was only one left, and it was 50% off, but it looked awful! Sweetbay tells me it is not all it's cracked up to be when you see it in the flesh, and I see now that she is on to something.
What a switcheroo! Not at all what you thought you bought, and quite a surprise. I am going to weigh in with Sweetbay -- I tried to incorporate 6 Karl Foersters into an already established mixed border and they were too tall, too wispy, kinda floppy and just did not go with the other plants. I took them all out last year. I do have three simple Northwind panicums lined up at the back of that same border, and they are architectural, strong, upright grasses that are a real punch of narrow structure to tame the blowsy mix of perennials. Karl Foerster isn't a strong enough or tidy enough grass to do that.
8/4/2013 02:07:36 am
I'm starting to see a trend here. I am going to have to start paying attention to switch grass and see how they look through the seasons. I had one when I moved in to the house, but eventually pulled it out (bad spot and it was extremely messy and floppy). But I gather there have been developments in the switch grass arena. Northwind could be the winner.
8/4/2013 12:30:03 am
Sarah, as usual quite hilarious. I am always reluctant to remove anything that is actually growing/blooming/not dying, but that's just me. Would it be crazy to put in a couple of trellises and grow clematis or something like that?
8/4/2013 02:09:51 am
I agree. If it's alive, that's a real plus, so why mess with that? But maybe I could move them someone better. I actually do like the idea of trellises, although Ron is not in favor of vines growing against the house. He is worried (rightly, I think) that it will invade the siding.
8/5/2013 01:48:04 am
Thanks so much. And thanks for stopping by my blog!
Oh man, grasses are so often mislabeled and it's so frustrating. I just recently discovered that I have three different grasses growing in one nursery pot, which resulted in some strange blooming. Here's to hoping you fall in love with the grasses you do have and that find the perfect spot for them!
8/5/2013 07:40:19 am
Three in one? I suppose that you could look at that as a buy-one-get- two-free kind of bargain. There are worse things, right? As for me, I am doing my best to love my new grasses. I'm kind of over Karl.
8/5/2013 06:13:22 am
ARGH! So frustrating when something like that happens. I've bought quite a few grasses over the years, and it IS hard to tell them apart early on (especially if dormant)! I do like the Pennisetum, however...they still add a nice bit of texture. It's too bad 'Karl Foerster' sounds like it's not happy in the south (it doesn't care so much for heat and humidity). I echo those above, Panicums are the way to go...'Northwind' is nicely upright and vertical, topping out around 6' tall in bloom. 'Shenandoah' is shorter at about 4'...still upright for me, even in partial shade...but looser, not a strictly vertical. I think they're worth a try :-)
8/5/2013 07:52:41 am
Thanks, Scott. I appreciate your thoughts on the Panicum and Pennisetum (which look better the longer I stare at them). Panicum is high on my list after seeing the reader comments. I've seen Shenandoah in person and love it; now to locate Northwind so I can inspect that in person as well. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog, and thanks for the advice.
Despite the switcheroo, Pennisetum 'Hameln' is a great grass. Understand it's not what you wanted in this spot but you should be able to move it elsewhere. I have a few 'Karl Forester' kicking around. They grow fairly well in part shade which is why I keep them. Last year the cat decided they made comfy beds which hasn't produced the most flattering results. This spring I added a variegated variety of Calamagrostis called 'Eldorado'. So far, so good. At least it has attractive foliage.
8/6/2013 05:32:40 am
Hameln is growing on me - not for that location, but there may be some other spots I could use it. I've seen Eldorado around but since I had my heart set on Karl Foerster I never gave it a second glance. Maybe the time has come. You are joining a growing chorus of Northwind supporters, so I am now in search of a local specimen to see how it compares to its internet photos. Thanks for all the suggestions.
I so enjoyed your post. You have such a great writing style and sense of humour. I am just the opposite when it comes to purchasing plants. I make snap plant decisions on the fly with no particular plan in mind. Then I get home and the plants remains in the pots for weeks until I decide what to do with them. I wish I had more restraint.
8/7/2013 01:54:17 am
Thank you so much for the compliment. It made my day. Like you, I have succumbed to my share of impulse plant purchases. In fact, I have three sitting in pots in my back yard right now - Panicum 'Shenandoah,' which I bought a few days ago because I saw it and it was flowering and so pretty and I couldn't resist. Guess what? It doesn't work on the side of the house. The search for Northwind continues.
These labeling mistakes seem to me to be more common. It has happened to me with two plants I bought last year which turned out to be something else. Even when what you get is as nice, it is rather annoying.
8/8/2013 02:03:05 pm
Now I'm thinking of putting a giant pot in front of it and planting something very tall!
8/13/2013 05:01:47 pm
What a fun post. I was wondering where you were going with that story. Sometimes those side yards near the house can be the trickiest garden spots. Keep us posted on whether or not you end up purchasing Karl Foerster in the weeks ahead.;-)
8/14/2013 05:44:20 am
It looks as if it's thumbs down on Karl Foerster, sad to say. Apparently he doesn't look too good for very long in these parts. On impulse, I bought some panicum Shenandoah, only to discover that they also don't work well against my brick wall. So we're still auditioning plants for that spot.
I haven't gotten to the point of adding grass on purpose. Seems like every time I turn around I'm pulling more weed grass out of my beds. It's one of those things that I admire in other people's gardens, but haven't figured out how to make it work in my own.
8/14/2013 05:45:54 am
It took me a while to fall in love with grasses too. Now I like them because they are so easy (except, of course, when they turn out to be something else). The birds like them too, so what can be bad?
Decisions. I share your method, having recently moved from Connecticut to a house in Georgia we bought with little ado. The time it takes for buying small stuff seems connected to the over-abundance of choices.
8/14/2013 05:49:07 am
I agree - way too many choices! It's a curse, in a way. I've been talked out of Karl Foerster, though, by people in the south who have grown it and said, basically, don't bother. It seems to go dormant very quickly in this climate. Does this make you want to rethink that "need" as well?
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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