Make Waves in Your Yard with Ornamental Grasses
By Heather Lamb, Editor
Mention ornamental grasses and many people envision amber waves on an endless prairie. It's not an image that fits in most backyards.
But in reality, these diverse plants—some native and some not—provide a way to make the grass on your side of the fence greener...or golden or burgundy or blue (like the blue fescue grass pictured at right). There has been a surge of interest in these versatile plants in recent years, in part because of the wide range of choices available and their ability to handle extreme conditions.
"They're virtually maintenance- and pest-free and can grow without much water," says Robert Bowden, director of the Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, Florida, which has an extensive collection of grasses. "Not only that, but you can use them in a variety of ways—as ground covers, borders or accents—and they're great companion plants, too."
Hard to Resist
With hundreds of types to choose from and a range of sizes, colors and flower characteristics, it's no wonder ornamental grasses are riding a wave of popularity.
But there's more to it than practicality. Ornamental grasses have an eye-catching allure that makes them uniquely attractive to gardeners.
"They have a restful and natural quality I think is appealing to people," says Mary Meyer, a University of Minnesota associate professor of horticulture who has been studying ornamental grasses for 30 years. "It's an informal look that changes with the seasons."
The first rule of thumb when considering ornamental grasses: Relax! Mary says gardeners should treat grasses like any other backyard plant.
"People tend to worry too much about the placement of grasses because they're not thinking of them as just another perennial," Mary says.
You don't have to dedicate an area of your yard to grasses. This isn't even the best course of action, especially when you're just starting to plant them.
"Grasses look best among other perennials," Mary says. "Many people think grasses will take over the garden, but the majority aren't invasive."
So, where to start? Mary suggests a trip to your local garden center. You'll discover what's available in your area, and if there's a display garden, it will give you ideas of how to use them. Then think about the same types of factors you would when selecting other plants, such as form, sun exposure, soil conditions and climate.
Plant form—and how it will fit in your landscape—is one of your first considerations. Ornamental grasses vary from 6-inch-tall fescues to varieties that reach 20 feet. The foliage is just as diverse, with shades of green as well as blue, yellow, brown, red and variegated. In addition, the foliage exhibits assorted silhouettes. Some have short spiky blades, while others grow in an upright column or produce mounds of curving leaves.
Focus on the Flowers
But on many ornamental grasses, the leaves are only part of the picture. The characteristics that really stand out are the flowers. Yes, flowers. Only these aren't flowers like we might typically think of them. Ornamental grasses rely on the wind to carry their pollen, so they don't need brightly colored blooms to attract insects for pollination.
But these flowers, more commonly called inflorescence, are just as attractive. The clusters of tiny flowers offer a diverse range of choices for the backyard landscape, from the fuzzy spikes of fountain grass to the airy plumes of Japanese silver grass. Some, like the purple clouds of muhly grass, are so striking they meet what Robert calls his "jogger test".
"If I have a grass in the front yard that makes the joggers stop to take a look, then I know it's something special," he says.
And unlike many garden flowers, these clusters keep their appeal year-round. Many exhibit rich autumn color and then provide a wonderful accent in winter landscapes as well.
Climate is another important factor, both in terms of winter hardiness and heat tolerance. Many types aren't hardy in northern areas, while other varieties fall victim to disease in humid regions.
Consider, too, that some grasses are a little too carefree.
Most of the common types have so-called "clump forming" roots, which slowly expand in diameter. But "creeping" grasses spread through more aggressive rhizomous roots and can quickly get out of control. Ribbon grass, giant reed grass and Japanese blood grass are a few examples of these.
Once you've selected a few grasses you'd like to grow, adding them to your yard is fairly simple.
"Just plant, water, fertilize and stand back," Robert says. "The best way to learn about them is to grow some."
They require little upkeep, just extra water during the first year until they're established. In spring, you can cut most types back to the ground to make room for new growth.
It's just what you'd expect from plants with such natural good looks.