Splendor in the Grass
With showy plumes and leaves that rustle and sway, ornamental grasses can add surprising texture to your yard
Think grass, and the image that comes to mind is usually a velvety, green-carpet lawn. But ornamental grasses — the tufted, mounding cousins of meant-to-be-mowed turf grasses — have come into their own as an option for beautifying flower beds and backyards.
Whether native marsh or mountaintop plants like straw-colored northern sea oats or greenish-gray big bluestem, or one of the more popular Asian imports like Japanese blood grass or golden Hakone grass, ornamental grasses' graceful clumps possess an impressive variety of foliage, making them versatile players in any garden scheme. Some grow less than a foot high, others reach more than 14 feet tall. Many varieties are drought-resistant and adapt to a range of soil types and temperatures. With the trend toward more natural-looking, water-conserving yardscapes, these hardy plants have found a place in garden centers and nurseries across the country.
Ornamental grasses' elegant leaves and spiked or feathery flower heads inject unexpected textures when mixed into a bed of perennials and shrubs. Such grasses are also valued for their unique "musical" qualities: When the wind blows, their slender shoots bend and rustle, whispering and sighing in ways few other plants can match. And their seeds beckon birds, adding even more movement to the yard. If you haven't already worked ornamental grasses into your yard, try surrounding one large specimen with several dwarf varieties, contrasting wide leaves against slender shoots for the most dramatic effect.
Generally low-maintenance, grasses require little more care than a yearly haircut in early spring to remove old foliage. Over time, though, they can start to sprawl and look overgrown. So every four to six years (two to three in mild climates), plants should be rejuvenated by splitting them into several smaller ones. "If you don't divide your grasses," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook, "you'll end up with a plant that isn't the quality specimen it could be." Do it right, and you'll increase your yard's beauty many times over.
The Great Divide
Roger Cook shows the right way to split an overgrown grass plant.
Where to Find It:
K & R Tree and Landscape
Nurseries that specialize in ornamental grasses:
Kurt Bluemel Inc.
Public gardens with ornamental grasses:
Tower Hill Botanic Garden
The New York Botanical Garden
Books on the subject:
Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design
by Nancy J. Ondra
Storey Publishing, 2002