Ornamental grasses have been popular features of European and Oriental gardens for a long time and are rapidly growing in acceptance in the United States. They add a dimension to the landscape like no other plant can. Their long leaves blowing in the wind create visual movement and texture and soothing rustling sounds both summer and winter.
Because ornamental grasses create such a contrast in the garden, they have often been misused. They work best as accent plants, backgrounds, screens, groups, and groundcovers.
Not only are they versatile, they require very little maintenance. They generally do not need fertilizer and are not particular about soil composition, except good drainage. Ornamental grasses require only average amounts of water, but most need full sunlight. At this time of year they need to be trimmed back to six inches total height in order to promote vigorous growth, remove dead stems, and create a more attractive plant. The rest of the year they can be left alone to add year-round color to the landscape.
In the summer and fall, foliage can be green, blue, red, copper, purple, yellow, cream, or white. In the winter it becomes either brown, beige, or tan, depending upon the variety.
Ornamental grasses that work best in small to medium-sized gardens grow from six inches in height to over four feet tall. Some of the more popular varieties that grow well in this area include the Feather Reed grass with its pink flower spikes, Gray’s Sedge with large seed pods that look like spiny stars, Blue Fescue and Blue Oat grass known for their blue-gray foliage, and Japanese Blood grass (which may be an annual in the colder areas), and Red Switch grass, both known for their red foliage.
Larger ornamental grasses that can grow from six feet to fifteen feet high depending upon the variety, work best in large areas as screens and backgrounds. These include Ravenna grass and Eulalia grass which are also good for drying.
Ribbon grass with variegated leaves, Blue Lyme grass with blue-gray foliage, and Variegated Cord grass, which can all take moist to wet conditions, work especially well in stabilizing banks from erosion.
Some varieties are annuals and must be grown from seed. Perennial grasses can be grown from seed but are generally purchased as growing plants. Spacing is two to three feet apart for plants above four feet tall, and wider for larger varieties. Small varieties should be space 8-12 inches apart to get a nice massing effect from them. Learn the various widths of the plants and space them accordingly.
Many perennial ornamental grasses may need to be divided every seven to ten years. When the grass shows growth only at the outer edges and not in the center, it is time to divide and transplant. This should be done in early spring.
Ornamental grasses are easy to care for and can create a strong contrast in the landscape. Choose from among the numerous varieties available to create interesting backgrounds, screens, and groupings.
Article by Fred Hower, “The Ohio Nurseryman.”
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