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How Ornamental Grasses Add Visual Impact to the Garden Landscape

Say “grass” and most people start ruminating about their lawns. But grasses – ornamental, not turf – seem to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts in all but the fussiest, most formal gardens, and most people don’t really have time to maintain those, anyway. Why incorporate ornamental grasses into your landscape? Grasses are low-maintenance, generally long-lived, and often offer three-season or even year-round interest.

Choosing an Ornamental Grass

Grasses add both texture and color to any garden. They are available in a wide variety of hues. Among the “blues,” one popular choice is Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue,’ which contrasts nicely with yellow foliage (such as Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’) or flowers such as Coreopsis or marigolds. Other grasses are yellow, gold, pink red, brown, or even black (e.g. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘nigrescens’ – otherwise known as “black mondo grass”). It can be striped horizontally (e.g. zebra grass) or vertically (e.g. variegated Liriope).

Like most plants, grasses can be grouped into either cool-season or warm-season categories. It’s important to know what you’re planting, as cool-season grasses often go dormant in summer to avoid succumbing to drought- and heat-stress. The warm-season grasses thrive in our heat and humidity, and it is the warm-season species that often boast the best fall colors.

Many grasses thrive in clay soil, particularly Miscanthus, (e.g. the lovely and durable Miscancthus senensis ‘Morning Light’) which is often criticized by U.S. gardeners for not being a “native” plant in North America. Nevertheless, Miscanthus has been the savior of many a neglected garden, even to the point of exhibiting weedy behavior. It will definitely pick up any “slack” as less robust plants droop or die off.

Keeping Ornamental Grasses Healthy

One method for foiling grasses’ zeal for self-sowing unwanted seedlings is to avoid excessive watering. Another is to surround the grasses with gravel or stone mulches; you’ll be able to spot escapees more easily. Finally, you can remove the “inflorescences” (the seeds at the tops of the stems in mature specimens) but that often strips the plant of an essential element of its beauty.

Another appealing trait of most ornamental grasses is that they are also relatively disease- and pest-free. They are not typically grazed by deer and rabbits, as these creatures tend to gravitate to more luscious, broader leaves. The most common disease malady for grasses in humid climes is fungus, which causes foliar rust diseases that show up as orange or brown spots, especially during warm, humid conditions. Cool-season grasses, not surprisingly, are especially vulnerable to this problem.

Finally, it’s important to note that many clumping grasses tend to die in the center as they age. It’s fine to revive them – usually during their growing season – simply by lifting the clump out, dividing it with a sharp knife or spade, and discarding the dead plant material. Transplant the divisions immediately and water them well, and they’ll perform as well as their parent.

Ornamental Grasses: Making Landscapes “Livable”

Adding ornamental grasses to the garden landscape is easy and affordable, as many grasses can be acquired from generous neighbors or even from nurseries seeking to unload surplus plant stock at the end of the season. Grasses break up the “green meatball” effect created by an over-reliance on clumps of broadleaved annuals, perennials, and shrubs, and they come in a dazzling variety of heights, colors, and textures. (You can search in Google “landscaping near me” to find the best landscaper.

One of the best books on grasses is The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes, by Rick Darke, published by Timber Press. Darke is an excellent writer and photographer, and he clearly has a passion for his subject. Readers will be inspired by his remarkable talent for explaining how different grasses can create different “moods” in the garden, and his photographs are breathtaking.