Ornamental grasses breathe life into your garden and knit your landscape together blade-by-blade.
Let me count the ways.
- As the wind blows, grasses sway with feathery grace and swishing sound.
- They provide cover, summer through winter, for pollinators and the small creatures that make your garden sing.
- Often, they bloom in late summer and early fall when the rest of the garden is winding down.
- They offer elusive winter interest. Unless we get heavy snow, grasses stand straight and tall until spring.
- They look good during every season of the year except in early spring when you cut back most, but not all. Even then, they blend in with other plants until it’s their turn to shine.
Last week, I did a Facebook live video showing off some of my ornamental grasses.
As you listen, picture me waving my arms while saying, “What can ornamental grasses do for your garden? So much!”
Do you remember a time when these superb plants weren’t part of garden design? I do. Older landscape styles were much more static. Designers relied heavily upon a few standard shrubs and trees along with exclamation points of annual bedding plants like begonias and impatiens in summer and pansies and violas in winter. The next time you’re out driving look at some commercial landscapes to get an idea of this aesthetic.
Bah. It bores me to tears. These days landscape designers are much more conscious of beauty, sound and movement in the garden. Plus, customers accept more divergence. Ornamental grasses are definitely part of this design initiative.
Ornamental grasses are pretty easy too.
Other than cutting them down in late winter/early spring, there is very little maintenance. Some, like Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass–shown at the top of this post–don’t even want that. You comb it instead. There is no deadheading and pruning. In my labor-intensive landscape, I find grasses a huge relief. Occasionally, they need tying up, but that’s about it. Click on the gallery below to enlarge the photos and see how my husband tied up the zebra grass. Snort. Subtlety is not in his nature.
A few weeks ago, I planted five P. virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ switchgrasses along my basement wall to break up its hard surface. To soften the retaining wall next to my basement, I planted a large variety of plants in a naturalistic border. Things are starting to take shape as you can see in the gallery above.
Because grasses are now so popular, there are many choices for your garden. Some of my favorites are:
- Maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis. ‘Adagio’ is a favorite selection.
- Melinis nerviglumis, ruby grass. I like ‘Pink Crystals’ and ‘Savannah.’
- Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’
- P. virgatum ‘Hot Rod’ is a new selection I found for my front pots. After the freeze, I’m going to pull it out and move it somewhere in the garden. I haven’t decided where yet. It’s also supposed to be a bit shorter than some switchgrasses at 3′ to 5′ tall.
- P. virgatum ‘Northwind’ is still a tall favorite in my garden. I divided it last fall after the tour and placed at the end of all four beds in the back garden. It should be back to its normal self next summer. I hope.
- P. virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Dallas Blues.’ These are two older ones, but they’re still great.
- Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Lenca’ Regal Mist® pink muhly grass. ‘Fast Forward’ is supposed to bloom earlier than Regal Mist. I grow both of them and haven’t been able to tell the difference.
- Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ purple fountain grass.
- P. purpureum ‘Fireworks’
- Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Ginger Love’
- Muhlenbergia reverchonii ‘PUNDO1 S’ UNDAUNTED® ruby muhly grass
Grasses don’t require much, but most like well-drained, somewhat sandy soil.
Don’t plant them in heavy clay. If you have heavy clay, amend the soil with compost or shredded leaves and work it into the clay breaking it up. Many grasses don’t require a lot of nitrogen so basic compost or leaf mold should work. It does for me.
Some grasses like little bluestem just want regular prairie soil. I water too often in my garden for little or big bluestem so I just enjoy it in the acreage we own across the street. We let the grass grow there all summer. Sorry I don’t have a photo.
If you’re wondering what to put with grasses, mums and asters are excellent choices, as are native shrubs and other perennials. ‘Fall Charm’ chrysanthemum is new to my garden, and I just love its bicolor blooms. So much so that I shared this beauty shot on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
So now you have some ideas for ornamental grasses. Where will you grow yours? I’d love to hear which ones are your favorites. If you haven’t ever considered growing these worthy plants before, plant some and watch your garden come to life.