Gardening with Grasses

Versatile, adaptable and low-maintenance, ornamental grasses are the new face of natural landscaping.

Versatile, adaptable and low-maintenance, ornamental grasses are the new face of natural landscaping

Not too long ago, grass was just something you mowed. Or weeded out of the garden bed. But with the growing interest in natural landscaping, ornamental grasses have come into their own. Considering the benefits these versatile plants bring to the garden – all-season interest, easy maintenance and a wide range of aesthetic qualities – one wonders that it took so long.

The Perennial Plant Association’s choice of a grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) for the 2001 Perennial Plant of the Year, is a clear testament to the fact that ornamental grasses are presently enjoying enormous popularity. What precipitated this well-deserved rise to renown? “Flower power is dead!” jokes Randal Atkinson of Meadowsweet Farms Garden Nursery in South Langley. “Plants that can provide more year-round interest in the landscape or garden are winning out over those that provide flowers for four weeks out of the year. Also, gardeners are hungering for new plants, and to learn to use form and structure better than they have in the past.”

Indeed, ornamental grasses add not only form and structure to the landscape, but sound and movement as well. Nothing conveys the kinetic energy of wind like a grass rippling or swaying in the breeze, its inflorescences (flowers) sparkling in the sunlight. Add to this the brilliant fall foliage of many grasses and the wheat-coloured beauty of dormant leaves and seed-heads in winter, and one fact becomes indisputable: Ornamental grasses are all-season winners.

The copious variety of ornamental grasses assures that one can be found to suit almost any garden situation. “Grasses work well in the garden as individual accents or specimens, in masses, and as a ground cover or lawn alternative,” explains Atkinson. “Because of the wide selection of growth habits, a grass can be found to fit into even a full garden. My experience with established gardens is that while there is little room to add a wide plant, a tall, narrow feature can still be integrated nicely.

“The versatility of grasses also makes them wonderful in containers,” Atkinson enthuses. “Evergreen sedges that tumble over the edge to soften a container, or a dramatic six-foot-tall miscanthus on a patio to provide privacy…. And grasses aren’t just green, either. With variegated foliage, gold, blue or burgundy leaves, there are lots of colours to choose from.”

This enormity of selection, however, can sometimes make incorporating grasses into the garden something of a challenge. A clump of grass planted in the wrong place can end up looking like an alien entity that just fell out of the sky and landed at random. Jim Brockmeyer of Bluestem Nursery in Christina Lake has been growing ornamental grasses for 10 years, and offers this advice: “Grasses are most ineffective when they are out of scale. There is always a temptation to use very large grasses because they look so exotic. But large grasses really need large areas to look their best, unless they’re serving as a screen or hedge.

“A common mistake when using grasses is not being aware of their particular habitat requirements,” adds Brockmeyer. “A good example is blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), which thrives in poor soil and hot, dry areas. When planted in a border with good soil and water, the plant becomes floppy and its lifespan shortens.” As with all plants in the garden, proper planning and forethought are essential in allowing grasses to look and perform their best.

Remarkably adaptable and easy to care for, ornamental grasses are ideal candidates for areas with poor soil or for low-maintenance gardens. A well-chosen grass can provide years of beauty and requires minimal fuss, with just a few provisions. “Most true grasses [the Gramineae family] like open areas in full sun with ample water,” explains Brockmeyer. “It’s important not to over-fertilize. Unless the soil is extremely poor, fertilizer is not necessary. When grasses are pushed along, the foliage becomes weak and won’t stand up again after a heavy rain.”

Planting and Maintenance
Most grasses are adaptable to a wide range of soil types. When planting them, follow the same guidelines as when planting any perennial garden. Plant to the original soil line and water-in immediately and thoroughly, as newly planted grasses can dry out quickly. Mulching will help to preserve moisture; a five- to seven- centimetre layer of mulch over the soil surface will be much appreciated by most grasses.

A well-chosen, well-placed grass requires little maintenance once established. Watering should be adjusted to the individual plant’s needs, keeping in mind that growth may be regulated by the amount of water the grass receives: the more water, the more growth. Also worth noting is that a grass accustomed to regular, copious watering will scorch easily if subjected to drought.

Cutting back is an important factor in maintaining healthy, attractive grasses. Knowing when, or if, to cut back a grass can be tricky; when in doubt, consult the knowledgeable folks at your garden centre. In general, ornamental grasses should be cut back just before or just as new growth starts for the season – usually in late winter. The best thing about this timing is that winter foliage may be appreciated right through February.

Companion planting takes on a whole new aesthetic appeal with the inclusion of ornamental grasses. The long, thin leaves of most grasses provide a lovely contrast to the wider leaves of many garden blooms, and the wide variety in foliage texture and colour beefs up the palette from which a gardener can create. The many species of miscanthus make ideal companions for aster, helenium, anemone and eupatorium, while Calamagrostis spp. can be combined effectively with echinacea, rudbeckia and phlox. Try Carex spp. with geranium, salvia, campanula and rodgersia, and contrast Luzula spp. with heuchera, pulmonaria, eurphorbia or hemerocallis. Forgive the cliché, but the possibilities really are endless!
Ornamental grasses are no passing trend. Given the infinite uses, natural beauty and low maintenance requirements of these versatile plants, their popularity is sure to endure.

Meg Yamamoto is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and photographer.