Sunday, August 5, 2012

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Blades of Grass

Helictotrichon sempervirens

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars."
-- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Whitman probably wasn't referring to ornamental grasses when he wrote those words, but I'd like to think he's approve of them if he were around today. After all, most of the prairies of his time have disappeared.

I’ve come to appreciate grasses – at least the ornamental ones -- more and more. That’s especially true with this year’s drought. They’ve needed next to no water and no special care. Of course, that’s not true for my sorry excuse of a lawn, but then that has been shrinking steadily over the years as my garden has grown.
I’m not sure why but gardeners seem to be divided into three camps when it comes to ornamental grasses.
1)      Love ‘em.  Give me more!
2)      Hate ‘em. Too messy looking, too big or need more sun than I have.
3)      Tentative. I’d like to try them but aren’t they invasive?
I started out in category #3 but switched to #1 as I learned more about ornamental grasses. I’ve generally stuck with the clumping varieties, which are much more well behaved than the running ones. I’ve used some natives as well as some non-native ones, with most of them under 3'-4’ tall.
What I like best about ornamental grasses is the texture they provide, a nice contrast to that of many perennials and shrubs. They also provide movement, with their seed heads swaying in the wind. The foliage can be left up in the fall to provide some winter interest. And, last but not least, they are sustainable, needing little care in even the most challenging of summers.
Here are a few of my current favorites.
Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)(shown above) is a cool season grass. It comes up early and “blooms” in late spring to early summer. The blue-colored blades keep their color throughout the season. These echo the color in a Globe Blue Spruce I have nearby in my front yard.
Calamagrostis x acutiflor 'Overdam'
The seed heads of Overdam Feather Reed Grass

Overdam Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’) is similar to the Karl Foerster grass that has finally been popping up in public places, like fast-food restaurants, strip malls and gas stations. It’s different in that it is more compact and its leaves are variegated. It’s sterile. I also have a similar grass called Avalanche, which has slightly more green than white in its leaves.

These two grasses and all of the ones  listed below are warm season grasses. They really need warm weather before they kick into high gear.

Morning Light Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) is breathtaking when it is back lit, so be sure to put it in an appropriate location. It has very fine variegated foliage and good winter interest. It can get to be about 4’-6’ but it’s so light and airy that you won’t mind.
Panicum virgatum 'Northwind'
Northwind Switch grass contrasts nicely with the Mohican viburnum behind it.

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is native to the tallgrass prairie, which once covered most of Illinois. I’m particular to the Northwind cultivar but I’m also dying to try Shenandoah, which has more red in it. Switch grass provides great winter interest and is also very good in dried fall arrangements.

Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose'
Karley Rose Fountain Grass seed heads sway in the wind
Karley Rose Fountain Grass (Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’) and Red Head Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Red Head) have been interesting. I thought Karley Rose as only hardy to zone 6 so I planted it near a maple tree in my Zone 5 garden as an annual. It has been coming back ever since.  It has spread somewhat but not obnoxiously so. I love the swaying of the seed heads, which start out pink and turn a light beige.

Red Head, on the other hand, has red bottlebrush-type plumes.  It's nice but has seeded itself in the garden so it’s currently on probation. I'm hoping that that the spread is due to last year's extraordinarily long, warm fall.
Sporobolus heterolepsis 'Tara'
The seed heads of Tara Prairie Dropseed
Sporobolus heterolepsis 'Tara' in the garden
Prairie dropseed in the garden

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) adds an incredibly fine texture to the garden. I especially like Tara, which is a bit more upright than the species. It also has a smell this time of year that reminds me of popcorn. My husband can’t smell it, though. I’ve heard this anomaly from more than one person, although I’m not sure why that’s the case.
Of course, there are lots more ornamental grasses available, including several that will take shade or even dry shade. I've recently added Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a butterfly host plant and tallgrass prairie native, so I will have to see how it does.
The deer that occasionally visit my garden never touch the ornamental grasses – another plus. Care is pretty simple. You just need to chop them down to about 4-6” high before the growing season starts.  They do need to be divided every so often and the roots go deep so be sure to sharpen your shovel beforehand.
If you’ve never tried ornamental grasses in your garden, I hope you’ll give them a try. Who know? Maybe you’ll move into category #1 as well.

By Karen Geisler


  1. First, congratulations on your GWA Silver Award! That's wonderful! Next, I'm a big fan of ornamental grasses, but I've found it difficult to find varieties for the shade. And recommendations? Great post!

    1. Thanks! As far as shade, have you tried Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra)? I've heard it does well in the Midwest. I've seen Aureola, the variegated version, and can't wait until I get enough shade for it. Carex also tolerates dry shade although I've heard some of them can spread quite a bit. Haven't grown it though.

  2. Congrats too on your GWA award. I was asked to join the GWA by a member (as a photographer and designer) and am seriously considering it. Maybe a chance to meet you next year in Quebec?

    I use grasses extensively in design for the reasons you mentioned. The texture is wonderful as is the late season interest and color. But most of all, little care.

    1. Donna -- You should definitely join the Garden Writers Association. I probably won't be able to make its convention in Tucson this year but I'm hoping to make Quebec next year. Have been to Quebec twice and really love it. Viewing some of the gardens there would be especially interesting!

  3. I also have 'Northwind' switchgrass and prairie dropseed and love these grasses. I also like bottlebrush grass. Some of the varieties you've mentioned I'm tempted to try, especially the pennisetums. I would add that there are two grasses I wouldn't plant more of: northern sea oats and any of the wild ryes. They are much too given to flopping, at least in my yard.

    1. Hope you'll try some of the pennisetums. I think our whacky weather is responsible for the seeding, so I want to be sure before I take it out. Too bad about the northern sea oats. I like the look of them.

  4. Karen congrats on your award. I am in category #1. I have many native and non-natives in my garden that provide all year interest in shade and sun. I need to feature them more. Great post!

  5. You are required to regularly water them to keep the grass evergreen and fresh. However, you may not have the enough time to devote after these activities and hence another best alternative to go for is drought resistant grass seed. bulk grass seed