GARDENING GURU: Overlooked Beauties…Ornamental Grasses

By Al Lowery
UCCE Master Gardener

I wonder if it was seeing them wave in the wind as I crossed the American prairies, or watched them ripple across a high Sierra meadow, or bend with the ocean breeze along the Pacific coastline, or spellbound by their variety of color and texture at demonstration gardens, when I became enamored with ornamental grasses. As a Master Gardener, I have been attracted to the majesty of trees, the large array of shrubs and the immense display of perennials and annuals. How could I have missed this obvious choice to complete anyone’s total landscape plans? There are so many reasons why ornamental grasses have captured my attention and are now an integral part of my plans. Could they become one of your favorites?

Ornamental grasses are basically divided into two main categories: those which are like commercial lawns because they are sod-forming and those which are hummock-forming. My focus is on the latter. They are also separated into cool and warm season grasses; each goes dormant in the opposite season.

There are several uses for ornamental grasses in landscapes: they are excellent as graceful borders along flower beds; when used en masse, they can create a meadow effect; and when intermixed with shrubs, they are an excellent contrast in color, shape and texture. They are an excellent choice for an antique urn on a patio, in a hanging basket or indoors in a breezeway, where natural flow of air can bring their flowing spirit to life. I feel they bring softness to the landscape setting, which in turn helps us relax and unwind. As breezes blow their delicate leaves and flower stalks, we capture a sense of freedom and almost hear the call of the wild.

Do you dread the repeated drudgery that can occur weekly in weeding, pruning, dead heading and treating for plant pests and diseases? Well, ornamental grasses are an excellent escape from this feeling of captivity. Their attractiveness is not limited to one season of the year, as they come quickly to life and fill in spaces in early spring. By mid summer, their growth slows and they are a wonderful buffer with blooming perennials. Even their decline in the fall is dramatic, much like the autumn leaf drama in the eastern United States. Many of the species of ornamental grasses make excellent dried floral arrangement components.

With the wide choice of ornamental grasses, you really are choosing “an ordered disorder.” Just plant, water, and they quickly develop a good root base. Then they are basically on their own! They do not need pruning, seldom are plagued with pests or disease and need only be cut back late in the winter, if at all. One thing that needs emphasizing is that since grasses usually produce a prolific amount of seed, spreading may occur. In small yards this may be a problem, but in large country landscapes, it may be a blessing. Consequently, advanced planning on their location is crucial.

While it is true that there is a current resurgence of interest in ornamental grasses, they are by no means novel. Just study many of the famous gardens around the world and you’ll be convinced. Still their fascination and popularity is apparent. Plant books and bulletins lately feature grasses in their plant of the month section.

Purple Needlegrass (Nassella Stipa pulchra) is California’s new official state grass by act of the legislature and signature of the governor. This lovely specimen, a native of our valley and foothills, grows 18 inches tall with stems that extend up to 3 feet with 4 inch purplish flowers on top. Another CA native gaining popularity in landscapes is Muhlenbergia rigens, or Deer Grass, which without summer water can grow to 3 feet. Its slender flower stalks, erect at first and then leaning, can reach 6 feet. Another showy favorite of mine is Pennisetum orientale or Fountain Grass. Leaf clumps rise to 1½ feet and pinkish flower plumes rise another foot or more above the foliage.

Local nurseries feature a variety of ornamental grasses. To begin a search for the right specimen for your particular setting, I would first start with Sunset’s Western Garden book and then be sure to read Ornamental Grasses, by Carole Ottesen (McGraw -Hill Publ.) The introductory sections are excellent and following chapters help make decisions about location and interaction with other plants.

I hope you become inspired to include ornamental grasses into your landscape.

To contact the Tulare/Kings Master Gardener Program, call 559-684-3325, e-mail [email protected] or write to 4437 S. Laspina St., Suite B, Tulare, CA 93247.

– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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