Ornamental Grasses

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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Whether you're an avid gardener or just turn your head at a lovely garden, it's hard not to appreciate the texture and character that ornamental grasses add to the curb appeal of almost any property. From seashore towns in Cape May and Sea Girt, New Jersey, to 18th century homes in Charleston, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia, long garden grasses are beautiful and dramatic. And it's not only a matter of appearance: grasses sound amazing when the wind rustles through them.

What's best in many respects, too, is how low maintenance ornamental grasses are. They need little fertilizer, are remarkably drought resistant, and do well both in direct sun and in shade. Many bloom as well, though this might not be the feature you first think of in grasses, providing marvelously airy and delicate flowers. Some varieties do well in flower arrangements also, whether fresh or dried. But let's look at the different types of grasses and at how they can be used in the garden.

Classifying Ornamental Grasses

One of the first ways to classify grasses is by their growth habits and, by extension in the garden, what care is needed. All grasses are either clumping or spreading. Among the first--which are not invasive--are blue fescue, purple moor grass, and hairstail. Among the second--which can, with their underground stems, sometimes be aggressive--are ribbon grass, blue lyme grass, and cord grass. (Keeping nitrogen levels low helps control ornamental grass growth, as does mulching.)

A second category is whether a grass is a cool or warm season grower. Cool season grasses--the fescues and tufted hairgrass, for example--start growth in spring and often are evergreen throughout the winter. They tend to die out in the center if they're not divided often enough. Warm season grasses, on the other hand, don't show new growth until summer, tend to die back in the autumn, need trimming back about six inches in spring, and are highly drought resistant. Typical warm season varieties include Japanese silver grass and prairie cord grass.

Visual characteristics such as height, leaf type, and flowering characteristics are perhaps the most obvious category type. Among the low grasses, which grow from two inches to a foot high, are foxtail grass, yellow sedge, and silver blue fescue. Medium height growers include the three-foot spangle grass with its flat seed heads and fountain grass with its dark purple flowers. Among the tall varieties are giant silver grass, which reaches up to 12 feet, and moon grass with its translucent flowers and eight-foot potential.

Ornamental Grasses in Garden Design

Among the big pluses of ornamental grasses in the home garden is that they bend rather than break, which is certainly an important consideration in windy environments--such as along a coastline or in the Great Plain states. And if your garden is geared as much to attracting songbirds as it is to color and fragrance, grasses play an important role in providing diversity of texture.

Ornamental grasses do well as a backdrop to the brightly colored blooms--such as red Columbine, butterfly bush, and hollyhocks, for example--that attract hummingbirds and others. Arranged with hosta in a shady rock garden, they serve admirably as points of interest, and as hedges and screens. Lower species such as yellow sedge do well as groundcover, as does ribbon grass, sometimes in poor soil, or in places where even Japanese yew refuses to grow.

Maiden grass, which clumps and grows to about five feet in ideal conditions, does well in a number of circumstances. A warm season grass, it does especially well around ponds or swimming pools. For fall color, Korean feather reed grass (also known as achy heart grass) is a medium clump-growth plant with refined pink plumes that gives way to bronze. Golden oats (Stipa gigantea), which grows in full sun and can reach eight feet, adds a lovely shimmer and softness to a fence line with its bristly spikes that turn gold when ripe in high summer.

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