The right grass in the right place. Ornamental grasses are suitable in almost any landscape setting. They combine well with garden plants—annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees; and they are fitting in any type of garden—contemporary, cottage, formal, xeric, eclectic or whatever your theme.
The plant group we call “ornamental grass” includes true grasses and grass-like sedges and rushes.
Species exist that are appropriate for a variety of environments and planting conditions, sites that are wet or dry, sunny or shady. Grasses range in height from low groundcover to medium and tall. Plants are annual and perennial, evergreen and deciduous.
Ornamental grasses are a good choice environmentally. They require no chemicals because they resist pests and diseases. They need little to no fertilizer. Stands of grass provide cover and seed for wildlife. Fast growing grasses limit erosion by stabilizing slopes. In addition, that many grasses are deer resistant is a plus for gardeners.
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Diversity and versatility make grasses an excellent choice for numerous uses in a landscape. Use grasses as ground cover, in containers, as borders and focal points. Some medium height shrubby grasses have a fast growth rate which means they can quickly form a privacy screen or hedge.
The weeping effect of short grasses softens harsh edges of containers. Tall grasses with arching tips can soften the vertical lines of structures.
With even a light breeze rusting leaves bring movement and sound to an otherwise static garden.
Ornamental grasses are known for bringing four season interest to a landscape. The color and height of grasses change with the seasons especially fall and winter. To draw attention to mixed shrub and perennial borders try intermingling tall grasses.
Consider siting medium or tall grasses where they will be backlit by the rising and setting sun. They make a beautiful display, especially when moisture sparkles on their leaves.
Tips for Choosing the Right Ornamental Grasses
Find out whether the species you select is a warm or cool season grass. Plant warm season grasses in the spring. Their green growth occurs in spring and summer with blooms in late summer and early fall. Enjoy the plants’ leaves and seed heads during late fall and winter as color fades from tan to platinum.
Plant cool season grasses in spring or fall. These species thrive in cool temperatures putting out green growth during winter, spring blooms and summer seed heads.
Choose a grass hardy in our climate zone. Like other plants some species are annual or perennial based on cold hardiness. If you plan to use a grass as a perennial make sure it is hardy in Zone 8.
Learn if your plant is a clumping or spreading grower. Clump forming grasses are less aggressive than those that spread by stolons or rhizomes. If a grass spreads find out if it grows slowly or quickly. Fast growers are potentially invasive.
Some ornamental grasses produce sterile seeds while others reseed. Control an aggressive reseeder by cutting off the seed heads when they mature.
Planting and Maintenance
Dig a hole just deep enough for the root ball. Plant grasses at the same depth they grew in their container. If planted too deeply grasses may develop root disease. Fill the hole with water. When the water drains spread roots at the bottom of the hole and backfill with the soil dug from the planting hole. Keep plants well-watered the first year.
Grasses are easy care and low maintenance. Cut your entire plant back to 4 – 6 inches high yearly. Prune warm season grasses in late winter, cool season grasses in early fall to stimulate new growth.
Some species need to be divided every 3 – 4 years to continue to thrive. If the center begins to die out the plant is losing some of its vigor and needs to be divided.
Avoid planting ornamental grasses close to your house. Dry grasses and seed heads are highly flammable.
Ornamental grasses have become more popular and available over the past two decades. You will find some at big box stores, but the best selection is at well stocked nurseries and from mail order catalogs.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at email@example.com.