Sheryl Hovey is a writer, editor and master gardener in Oakton, VA.

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Designing with Ornamental Grasses
by Sheryl Hovey       #Colorful   #Ornamental Grass

Combining ornamental grasses can give your landscape a very naturalized look. Pictured from front
are Mexican feather grass, purple fountain grass, lavender, the pink-beige tufted oriental fountain grass
and miscanthus. The deep burgundy spiked blades in the right foreground belong to the annual
‘Baby Bronze’ New Zealand flax.
Photo by Saxon Holt.)

Whether you’re planning a new landscape or rejuvenating an established one, ornamental grasses can add surprising pizzazz. They are dynamic, versatile and carefree in ways that few other plants can match. Widely known as the stars of autumn with their showy, long-lasting plumes, they can provide almost year-round interest. These grasses not only bring structure to the landscape, but sound and movement as well. Ornamental grasses are enjoying a wave of popularity as today’s gardeners discover their many outstanding qualities. So, if you are looking for a plant that can hold its own in any landscape, ornamental grasses are well worth considering.


Ornamental grasses usually perform unfailingly. Many are native to U.S. soils, so they need no special treatment. Remarkably resilient and able to tolerate Virginia’s hot and often dry summers to the point of drought, once established they require a minimal amount of care. Easy to grow, they need little pruning during the growing season and have virtually no disease or pest problems. Even deer tend to avoid them. Not surprisingly then, they are a top choice among homeowners with a penchant for low maintenance landscapes.

Nothing brightens up a lightly shaded border like golden hakone grass. Here, from bottom right it is interplanted with bright blue forget-me-nots and the silvery leaves of lamb’s ears. Beyond the second clump of hakone grass is purple ‘Nimbus’ geranium. (Photo by Saxon Holt.)

Besides being dependable, grasses are amazingly versatile and will fit seamlessly into either a naturalized or a more manicured design. Ornamental grasses add structure and drama to borders and beds and come in a host of shapes, from columnar to mounding; sizes, from towering to diminutive; and many different textures. A breeze can set their flowing forms swaying, filling the garden with a soft rustling sound.

Ornamental grasses, including grass-like plants, can be annuals or perennials. They grow either in a neat clump, or, as is the case with ribbongrass and many bamboos, by underground stems, often spreading aggressively and becoming invasive. The majority of ornamental grasses are sun lovers, but others, such as sedges and Hakone grass, work best in a moist, shady spot.




Ornamental grasses can be fast growers. They can shoot up much like Jack’s beanstalk in the spring, reaching their full height in mere weeks. They add volume and depth to the summer garden with their dense foliage in greens and blues, reds and burgundies, and stunning variegated patterns, providing a backdrop to other perennials and long blooming annuals. In fall, they are ready to take center stage when summer-blooming flowers are on the wane. Their spectacular flower stalks yield to dramatic, feathery plumes and seedpods in muted reds and pinks, beiges and whites, that seem to shimmer in the bright sun. When cold temperatures arrive, they age gracefully to various shades of blended yellows, tans, beiges and browns.

Fountain grass in full bloom lends a light and airy accent that not only enhances the other colors
and textures in this garden bed but also draws the eye through it.

Photo courtesy of Hidden Lane Landscaping, Herndon, VA.)


If you want to add eye-popping color to your perennial garden, try bright red Japanese blood grass. It makes a bold statement when contrasted with the silvery green ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, behind and right, and the white flowered gaura, directly behind.
Photo by Saxon Holt.)

By providing privacy for this lakeside patio, serving as a backdrop for lower growing plants and hiding a timber wall, miscanthus does triple duty in this landscape. (Photo courtesy of Hidden Lane Landscaping.)

Regardless of the season, ornamental grasses have great curb appeal. They can be used to provide a contrast of color, an accent or focal point, or a backdrop for other plants in the garden. Try Japanese blood grass to add stunning color to a border. Small, clump-forming grasses, such as dwarf fountain grass, can provide garden accents. Larger types, like miscanthus or pampas, can work either as an accent plant or provide structure for lower growing plants in a flowerbed.


Ornamental grasses can take on other duties as well. When planted en masse or combined with evergreens, tall grasses, like miscanthus and feather reed grass, can create privacy, screen out undesirable views or shape a special nook in the garden. They will readily soften a fence or a vertical wall of your home, helping it blend into the surrounding landscape. At the front of a border, lower growing grasses, such as blue fescue, can provide a flowing bridge between shrubs and perennials and a lawn beyond. Low growing grasses also look great lining a pathway.


Grasses thrive in difficult areas such as steep slopes or poor soils. Try low growing blue moor grass or oriental fountain grass instead of lawn grasses for a practical and attractive ground cover. Those with limited space could experiment with one dramatic accent grass or mass smaller ones with interesting leaves, flowers or seed heads instead.

If you like to plant in pots, planters and window boxes, ornamental grasses offer many options for sun or shade. This is the place to try annual grasses, such as purple fountain grass or the beautiful (but invasive) golden bamboo. And if you want to dress up a water garden, turn to grasses such as horsetail or umbrella plant.

So if you haven’t incorporated ornamental grasses into your landscape, what are you waiting for? Surely there’s at least one that will work perfectly for you.



A closer look at the fountain grass
Photo courtesy of Hidden Lane Landscaping.)



(From Virginia Gardener Volume 2005 Issue May.)


Posted: 04/18/12   RSS | Print


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