Bobbie Schwartz, FAPLD, is a certified, award-winning landscape designer. She is the owner of Bobbie’s Green Thumb.

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The Grace of Grasses
by Bobbie Schwartz, FAPLD       #Ornamental Grass

Ornamental grasses have wonderful textures, colors and silhouettes. They can be included in any garden design, from traditional to modern. Consider adding them to your garden — here is how. 

Grasses have covered the Earth from time immemorial, but they were not used as landscape ornamentals until relatively recently. When I refer to grasses, I am including grass-like plants such as sedges, woodrushes and lilyturf.

The incredible variety of height, form, color, texture and type of inflorescence of ornamental grasses can and should be utilized to create well-designed landscapes that distinguish themselves from the mundane.

Repetition of different textures and heights of the blue grasses blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’) on two sides of the front yard helps to unify the landscape.

Ornamental grasses have a timeless quality that makes them usable with any type of building, whether traditional or contemporary. Nowhere is their texture more needed than in old landscapes of stiff evergreens.

The linearity of grasses provides a lovely textural foil for perennials and shrubs. The trick is selecting a grass and a perennial or shrub that will enjoy the same cultural preferences. I frequently use Sedum spp. with its succulent foliage next to Helictotrichon spp. since both like full sun and dry, well-drained soil. The possible combinations are infinite.

Having so many differences, grasses can easily be contrasted with each other. For example, foliage of the stiff blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) will only grow 12 inches high although its inflorescence will be 24 inches high. Repeating the color but with a different size (taller) and form (looser), you could plant one of the blue cultivars of switch grass (Panicum virgatum) on the other side of the property. Another difference that adds interest is the fact that Helictotrichon will keep its color during the winter while Panicum will turn yellow and then beige.

Where does one place grasses in the landscape? Almost anywhere — as specimens, masses or hedges. Those with large foliage and inflorescences, like maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.), can be used almost anywhere but the grasses with wispier inflorescences, such as fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) and moor grass (Molinia spp.), need a dark background to be seen effectively. They could also be planted at the front of a border because the viewer can see through the inflorescences to the plants behind them. Those grasses with light green foliage such as Pennisetum will be more effective if placed between plants with dark green foliage.

Spacing of ornamental grasses will depend on the look you hope to achieve. Normally, one spaces grasses as far apart as they are tall. This spacing enhances their massed effect and gives the appearance of an ocean of grass. But wider spacing will emphasize their mounding character. Some grasses, such as feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora), which have extremely vertical inflorescences, will make a stronger statement with closer spacing to accentuate their verticality.

Use the concept of color echo to strengthen the effect of grasses. For example, try planting Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’) near a Coleus spp. cultivar which picks up that shade of red and parsley that repeats the green. You could also plant a white variegated grass with a white flowering shrub like Abelia spp., or a yellow-variegated grass with a yellow-flowering perennial or shrub.

A striking vignette is created by planting Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’ next to a coleus cultivar that picks up that shade of red and next to parsley that repeats the green.

Natural lighting is another way to emphasize color. Backlit inflorescences become translucent rather than opaque. Backlit foliage can become translucent too, turning from red to flame. In autumn, during early morning or late afternoon, catch a glimpse of the fiery spectacle presented by Imperata or one of the red cultivars of Panicum or Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purpurascens’. Front lighting can also be used to create an appealing display. Miscanthus sinensis, in late fall, winter or early spring before being cut down, is beige. However, early morning sun on Miscanthus turns it to burnished gold.

Ornamental grasses are a diverse group of plants, able to fill many needs while providing beauty and drama year round. Because many of them change in character with the seasons, they add interest to an otherwise static landscape. Hopefully, you are now motivated to use them extensively in your landscapes.

From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2012. Photos courtsey of Bobbie Schwartz.


Posted: 08/22/12   RSS | Print


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