Selecting, Using, and Maintaining Ornamental Grasses
Long adored in Europe and the Orient, ornamental grasses have finally become accepted into American gardens. Different from lawn grasses, which are tolerant to foot traffic but are boring and require high maintenance, ornamental grasses are used more for aesthetic purposes.

They are remarkable plants that come from all corners of the globe. Even some of our native prairie grasses make splendid ornamental specimens. Ornamental grasses range from an inch or so tall to over 20 feet and include the bamboos (woody grasses), many of which are hardy in the midwest.
The color display of ornamental grasses is something to behold. It begins with the leaves which during late winter display attractive shades of straw and tan. Some evergreen species even remain green all winter long. During March these leaves should be removed-to make room for the new-year's growth, which begins in late April. By May the new leaves begin to grow very fast and by midsummer they begin to mature.

Most grass leaves are narrow and pointed at their tips, but the similarities end there. Grass leaves are available in about every shade of green and blue, golden and yellow, bronze, red, silver and green striped, gold-and-green-striped, gold-and-greenbanded. They often change color or intensify their colors in fall. This alone is remarkable, but in combination with the flowers, which normally transcend the foliage during summer or fall, the color effect is spectacular. Flowers of grasses include shades of tan, pink, purple, russet, yellow, white, and silver. They are often large, showy, and persistent. And, like the leaves, they often remain effective throughout the winter months.


Landscaping with Grasses:

Ornamental grasses perform a variety of functions. Like the turf grasses, some of the shorter types can be walked on. The shorter sedges (a genus of grasslike plants) even grow in the shade and only need mowing once a year. Others serve the purpose of conventional ground cover and may be either colonizing spreaders or short growing clump formers that tolerate close spacing. Large, clump forming selections make nice specimen- or accent-plants and can easily take the place of small to large sized shrubs. These may be massed in thickets for a tropical effect and can even be planted as a hedge.

Naturalized Plantings:

Certain native grasses can be used at home or on a commercial scale in praire type gardens. Here they combine nicely with other prairie species including a number of perennials and annuals.

Grasses Enmasse as Ground Covers:

Most ornamental grasses lend themselves to planting in large colonies as ground covers. Sometimes, one has to be a bit open minded to visualize a 6 foot tall grass as a ground cover, but when thinking large- or commercial-scale, this becomes easy to do. On a residential basis, the smaller types such as Carex, Panicum, and Pennisetum, may be more appropriate choices.

Grasses for Accent:

Used alone or in small groupings, many grasses lend themselves to use as accent plants. In this manner, they help draw attention and visual support to other plants, landscape features such as benches, sculpture, stairs, decking, light poles, and fences.

Grasses as Hedges:

Tall clump forming grasses make fabulous hedges and screens. Costing much less than a fence, grass hedges are typically exempt from zoning ordinances and taxes, and never have to be painted. Selections of Miscanthus are commonly used for hedging, but Erianthus, Panicum, Calamagrostis, and Sorghastrum also work quite well.

Grasses for Edging:

With their graceful foliage, low growing clump forming grasses are ideal for edging pathways, stairs, and sidewalks. Here they add beauty, soften sharp edges, and require little maintenance.

Motion and Sound in the Landscape:

The tree Populus tremuloides is commonly named quaking aspen for the motion and sound of its leaves as the wind rustles through them. A greater wonder is why none of the grasses have been named for the lovely motion and soothing sound that the wind causes as it blows across them. Even the shortest grasses (and also the bamboos which are woody-stemmed) respond to gentle breezes and create the elements of motion and sound, so important to our enjoyment of the landscape.

Grasses as Specimens:

Grasses can take the place of shrubs in the landscape and perform the function of a specimen. As such, they can be planted alone and enhance the landscape with their own unique features and architectural merits:

Grasses for Erosion Control:

Grasses have extensive fibrous root systems and when planted on steep slopes, enmasse, do an excellent job of stabilizing the soil.

Grasses as Companion Plants:

Grasses are superb companion plants, interacting well with a host of ground covers and perennials. Some of the most popular companions to the grasses are Rudbeckia, cone flower, Sedums, Russian sage, Oregano cultivars, Lavender, daylilies, Geranium cultivars, crownvetch, Caryopteris, Campanula, Aster, and Solidago.

What are Grasslike Plants?

There are some plants that look like grasses but are not. Usually they differ in some anatomical trait such as the arrangement of the flowers. These are plants that, like the sedges, have narrow, pointed, grassy looking leaves. Besides the sedges, varieties of sweet flag (Acorus) and rushes (both grasslike plants) are excellent in the landscape.

Maintaining Ornamental Grasses:

The maintenance of ornamental grasses is easy. If it is a running type of grass and you want it to stay within bounds, surround it with a deep plastic edging. Dig a narrow trench two feet deep and insert a sheet of heavy duty plastic from the bottom to the top of the trench. Then backfill with soil. This will prevent the rhizomes of the grass from spreading out of control. Grasses (with the exception of the evergreen bamboos) should be cut down to a height of 2 inches once each year. You can do this in fall but it is best to wait until spring. Grasses look nice poking through the snow during winter, and what's more, they give birds a place to perch-and feed should the grass be seed bearing. By late winter grasses become tattered and during March should be cut down. To do this you may use a lawn mower, or if the grasses are very stout, pruning shears or a weed eater equipped with a rotary blade.

Planting, Maintenance, Spacing, and Watering:

Similar to ground covers. Please refer to the ground cover section of this site.
 


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