Ornamental Grasses

Richard Englund
Adams County Master Gardener

I've fallen in love with grasses, not the troublesome, labor intensive, disease prone and bug infested stuff that we have to cut each week to make what we call a lawn, but rather the whole family of grasses which we call ornamental.

This happened somewhat by accident. Along the edge of our property by the street, there stood a stand of six beautiful white pines. That is, they were beautiful until they started to be trimmed by the power company. After several "trimmings" they no longer resembled trees, and so I had them cut down. The area looked rather bare, and I had to find something to put in their place which would not grow as tall as trees. That's when I discovered the wonderful world of ornamental grasses.

There are now nine different varieties growing where the pine trees used to be along with other bushes and plants. Wish I had room for more. Five of them have been divided and planted at the Adams County Extension Office located along the Old Harrisburg Road in Gettysburg in case you would like to come by and see for yourself how well grasses perform in the garden.

Calamagrostis acutiflora
Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster', pictured here, was the 2001 Perennial of the Year. Commonly called Feather Reed Grass, it grows 5 to 6 feet high and about 2 feet in diameter. It is very well-behaved and comes highly recommended.

Ornamental grasses are rapidly increasing in popularity. Adapting well to a wide range of growing conditions and basically trouble free from diseases and pests, they are among the easiest plants to grow. Most of them do require full sun, but several like Carex (Sedge grasses) and Hakonechloa (Hakone grass) tolerate part shade. Many of them tolerate drought conditions while others do need moisture. Some are very short like the foot-high Festuca (Blue Fescue), but others like Arundo donax (Giant Reed grass) can grow up to 25 feet.

Grasses can be chosen to fit any landscape situation. Often they can be used as a ground cover and for erosion control on a slope. For this, you would need to plant grasses which are considered invasive. But for the most part, grasses make outstanding specimen plants when planted individually. For such plantings you would use non-invasive varieties which fortunately are the majority of the ornamental grasses. This is the way I have used them.

In addition to a wide range of heights and spreads, there is a tremendous variation in leaf size and color. Colors range from pale greens to bright powder blue to brilliant yellows to blood reds to predominately white and even black. There are also many types with horizontal patterns as well as the more familiar vertical patterns. When it comes to the flowers which can bloom any time from the late spring to late fall depending on the variety, you can find many variations from small bottlebrush arrangements to large showy plumes in many wonderful colors from white to yellow to pink and deep maroons.

Perhaps their best feature is that grasses are beautiful spring, summer, fall and winter. I know there are some people who want to clean up the yard in the fall by mowing everything down to the ground, but that should never happen in an area where ornamental grasses are grown. While the new growth in the spring, the graceful rhythmic movement of the summer and the rustling sounds of the fall are to be desired, some of the most beautiful sights are the snow-covered grasses of the winter. Donít cut ornamental grasses back until late February or early March and risk missing their wonderful winter display when so little else is providing any interest to the garden landscape.

Read other articles on garden and landscape design

Read other articles by Richard Englund