Norman Winter is Executive Director of The National Butterfly Center, Mission, Texas, and author of the highly acclaimed Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South and Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.

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Ornamental Envy
by Norman Winter       #Ornamentals

You must make your beds big enough for ornamental grasses to reach their full potential.


Fall is the season when many of us envy our neighbor’s gardens. You know what I’m talking about. One morning, you step out the front door and stroll through your front yard, which is just about done showing off for the year. While you are picking up the morning paper, you see something through the corner of our eye: your neighbor’s garden is still outperforming the rest. Something is swaying in the breeze with its beautiful blooms, just daring you to ask the neighbor, “Where did you learn that trick? What design school did you attend?”

The likely truth is that your neighbor didn’t have to spend hours in the classroom to learn how to create a garden with fall interest. Your neighbor may inform you, “Fall beauty is simply what happens when you start growing ornamental grasses.” Much to your chagrin, your neighbor is right. Often, what distinguishes one fall garden from another is the effective use of ornamental grasses.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to get jealous this fall. This envious escapade could end today or tomorrow, because you can plant container-grown ornamental grasses at just about any time. In other words, you can have your own wispy plumes this fall, which will only get better and better in subsequent years. Who knows? Perhaps a jealous neighbor will soon come knocking on your door!


Admiring Their Unique Beauty

Once the grasses are in the landscape and blooming, a new dimension has been added. Vines may add vertical interest just like ornamental grasses, but the latter do something few people think about: They move. A garden planted with several species of grasses in close proximity to each other performs a dance in the wind that no choreographer could duplicate. Back and forth they move as the wind dictates – slow and gentle, fast and swirling – mesmerizing everyone who watches.

They do something else that is incredible. When placed in the background and backlit from the setting sun or landscape lighting, they glisten as if they were covered with a thin coat of ice. And speaking of ice, the frosty kiss of those cold fall mornings will make ornamental grasses the prettiest plants in the landscape.


Keeping Your Grasses Going

Cut back the grass in February or late winter before any new growth has begun. Trim back from ground level to 6 or 12 inches, depending on the grass. After you cut back, side dress with an application of the 12-6-6-fertilizer, then again in midsummer. Keeping the bed well mulched and watered during the summer pays off with a healthier, happier looking plant.

Truly, you don’t have to enroll in an advanced landscape design course to learn how to use ornamental grasses. It is almost as simple as digging a hole, planting the grass and tucking in few of your favorite blooming flowers – such as mums, lantana, zinnias or salvias – for good measure. When your neighbors see the results, they may think that you spent your summer vacation at summer school. I say, “Let them have their envy. You’ve got ornamental grasses!”


5 Steps for Planting Ornamental Grass

1) Make the bed big enough. Growing ornamental grass is a lot easier than you think. From a design standpoint, you first must make your beds large enough so that the grasses can grow as big and elegant as they should. Notice the accompanying photo. A 3- or 4-foot wide bed would simply not allow Japanese silver grass to exhibit all its majestic beauty. Plan for 8 to 10 feet if you really want to make an impact.

2) Remove competing vegetation before planting. This is more important with ornamental grasses than almost any other plant. Many disgruntled gardeners have found that aggressive Bermudagrass or vines will make themselves at home by intermingling in the middle of the ornamental grass clump. Apply a non-selective herbicide or remove with a hoe. It may take a second herbicide application to get rid of all competing vegetation.

3) A bed’s soil must be loose, well prepared and rich in organic matter. Regardless of the grass you choose, you must provide these conditions. To accomplish this, incorporate 3 to 4 inches of peat or compost to improve drainage and aeration. While tilling, add 2 pounds per 100 square feet of a 12-6-6 slow-release fertilizer with minor nutrients.

4) Plant ornamental grass at the same depth they are growing in the container, placing the crown of the plant slightly above the soil line. Water the grass thoroughly after planting to remove any air pockets and to settle the soil.

5) Don’t forget the mulch. Add a good layer of mulch after planting to prevent a rapid loss of moisture from evaporation and to prevent weeds.

Outstanding Ornamental Grass Choices:




Pampas Grasses

But you might be thinking where do I start? Your first thought is probably pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana). Certainly there is none more beautiful when in bloom. Mostly seen in the Southern US are taller selections, but there are outstanding dwarf versions like ‘Pumila’, ‘Bertini’ and ‘Gold Band’ that are much easier to maintain.




Fountain Grasses

The fountain grasses (Pennisetum sp.) are certainly not outdone since they have some of the most eye-catching foliage and flowers for the landscape. The most popular is purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum), an annual grass for most of the South but the purple foliage and arching plumes make it worth every cent.

‘Hameln’, a dwarf form of P. alopecuroides, reaches only 24 to 30 inches tall and has showy plumes from midsummer through fall. ‘Moudry’ has black, 12-inch plumes on 24-inch tall plants. Receiving rave reviews is the 36-inch tall P. messiacum ‘Red Bunny Tails’.



Muhly Grasses
The hottest grass in the Southern US is still the muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris. Named selections, such as ‘Lenca’, are starting to show up at garden centers as well as other species such as bull grass (M. emersleyi) and bamboo muhly (M. dumosa). Muhly grass reaches 2 to 4 feet tall and forms large, rose-pink, billowy cloudlike blooms that cause first-time viewers to gasp in amazement.






Feather Reed Grass

‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) reaches 3 to 5 feet and is a Perennial Plant of the Year. Many were planted in the year of the promotion and within a few months gardeners were pronouncing it a disappointment. But the same gardeners were raving about it the next year. It is important to be patient when planting ornamental grasses. They generally get better as they reach the second and third years.







Japanese Sweet Flag

Japanese sweet flag varieties of Acorus gramineus give a grasslike look and offer some of the prettiest gold variegation for the landscape. Varieties such as ‘Ogon’ can be grown along a babbling book or act like a liriope substitute in upland soils. The super dwarf ‘Minimus Aureus’ can form a carpet of gold and almost stop traffic.






Mexican Feather Grass

New grasses are showing up yearly, giving us more choices than even the most ardent grass lover could have dreamed. Two great examples are Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima), which grows 18 to 24 inches, and New Zealand hair sedge (Carex comans‘Frosted Curls’), which grows 10 to 12 inches.

Golden Hakone Grass
If gold suits your fancy then by all means try golden hakone (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), 12 to 14 inches. The golden weeping texture of this grass will draw the eye in any garden where it is used. One planting I recently saw used it adjacent to a purple-leafed heuchera; it was truly outstanding.




Left:  variegated St. Augustine                                 Right:  fiber optic

Novelty Varieties
Some might consider them novelties, but grasses such as variegated St. Augustine and fiber optic grass (Isolepis cernua) have become staples in large mixed containers. The variegated St. Augustine also makes a handsome groundcover.  


(From State-by-State Gardening October 2003.  Photos by Norman Winter)


Posted: 05/11/11   RSS | Print


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