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Define Spaces Elegantly with Plant Screens

Taming the Wilderness: The Art of Using Grasses to Carve Out Garden Spaces

A few years ago, I was designing a garden for clients who, like me, are big fans of ornamental grasses. We had planted grasses in abundance on their previous property. Now, they were planning a garden composed of informal beds within a formal design. Stymied, I decided to visit the old garden. Like an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while, it looked different to me. I realized that I had used grasses as hedges along pathways and as focal points and edgings. Rather than being seduced only by grasses’ colors, textures, and plumes, I began to see their architectural forms. Grasses can act visually like shrubs – some are arching, others stiff and formal, and they have different weights as well.

It dawned on me that grasses could be used to define space in a garden. With this new insight, I stopped worrying as much about which plants to use and focused on the forms I needed. Suddenly, my ideas began to flow more easily. I used dense, arching forms as hedges and borders to define and enclose areas of the garden. I combined the many vertical shrubs and structures with strong, upright grasses. I chose looser, more open grasses to soften the strictness of the vertical elements. This resulted in a garden with forms that complemented each other, while the different varieties of grasses added subtle color and movement.

Grasses as Edging: Defining the Shape of the Garden

I’m always on the lookout for attractive edging plants that won’t fizzle by the end of summer. Edgings are important because they define the shape of a garden bed. Shorter grasses that complement and contrast with plants in a bed make excellent edges. They are neat, hardy, and fuss-free. Their clean lines spill gracefully onto a walkway without taking over. They can be used formally, but the plant itself is informal and loose – a dynamic contradiction of form.

Whether you want a soft edge or a hard one, grasses have the versatility to meet your needs. Some grasses are compact and tidy and will lend a formal, tight look to your edges. Sedges (Carex spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9), which are not technically grasses but act like them, fall into this category. Softer edges are achieved by using grasses with wispy habits, such as blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens and cvs., Zones 4-9) and small fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp. and cvs., Zones 6-11). Some of these grasses can look a bit unkempt and require more maintenance, so choose carefully.

Grasses as Hedges: Seasonal Screens with Minimal Maintenance

A hedge encloses an area, blocks a view, or creates privacy. Shrubs such as privets, yews, arborvitae, and boxwoods give a dense, heavy, evergreen statement to a garden. But what about using grasses? They don’t need pruning and are generally hardy. And if one dies, it’s easier – and less costly – to dig out and replace than an evergreen shrub.

Hedges made of grasses change through the seasons. You’ll have to accept that you’ll have no hedge in early spring, but the foliage and plumage that follow later in the season are worth waiting for. Because you will have only foliage until late summer, it’s important to think about what kind of texture and color you want and pick your plant accordingly. Most grasses start blooming in late August, and their subtly colored plumes are transformed as they age. I leave them in place all winter. The birds and I enjoy their straw-like colors and textural seed heads. I cut the hedge as close to the base as possible in early spring, saving time by using a gas-powered hedge clipper.

Deciding which grass to select depends on what I want the hedge to do. If it is for privacy, I prefer tall, dense varieties such as several of the miscanthus varieties (Miscanthus sinensis and cvs., Zones 6-9). To enclose an area without giving it a heavy look, I might choose switchgrasses (Panicum virgatum and cvs., Zones 5-9) or reed grasses (Calamagrostis acutiflora and cvs., Zones 5-9). I also consider whether the planting is to be formal or informal. Switchgrasses and reed grasses have stiff, upright forms and are suited to formality. Miscanthus and fountain grasses are arching and dense and work well for informal plantings.

Grasses in Mass Plantings: Stopping the Eye and Creating Depth

Planting a sea of grasses is an effective, low-maintenance way of dealing with large areas. Which grasses I choose for a mass planting depends on the location of the garden and the vantage point of the viewer. For beds seen at a distance, an expanse of tall, thick grasses – such as miscanthus or fountain grass, or a heavy switchgrass like Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ – is effective for stopping the eye. Or I might want to walk through the planting and be able to see through it. Using light-textured grasses such as a reed grass, tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa and cvs., Zones 5-9), or wispy switchgrass like Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ would help create a transparent look. If I’m facing a bed head-on from a first-floor window, I might want to graduate the heights of the grasses, resulting in a slope of different textures and colors.

Grasses also mix well with each other. I like to contrast thin and thick foliage, creating subtle palettes of color. A few of my favorite texture and color contrasts are Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ with its graceful, narrow green-and-white blades and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegata,’ which has bold, broad green-and-white blades. Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah,’ which has reddish blue foliage, jumps out in a bed of other blue Panicum cultivars such as ‘Heavy Metal,’ an upright, metallic blue grass that turns yellow in fall. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ with its bold gold horizontal bands paired with the delicate gold foliage of Miscanthus sinensis ‘PĆ¼nktchen’ is an energetic study in color and texture.

I also suggest using contrasting plumes. I like using Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry,’ which has purply black inflorescences, along with Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose,’ which has pale pink inflorescences. Experimenting with contrast has led to some of my best color and texture combinations.

Being aware of the forms of grasses has changed how I use these plants in my designs. In fact, even as I rely on grasses to set new boundaries in the garden, I’ve freed myself from some old design constraints. Today’s Gardens is a place where I can let my creativity soar, blending grasses with other plants to create truly unique and captivating spaces.

Embracing the Diversity of Ornamental Grasses

As a garden designer, I’m constantly on the lookout for new and interesting plants to incorporate into my designs. Ornamental grasses have become a particular passion of mine, and for good reason. These versatile plants offer a wealth of possibilities when it comes to defining spaces, creating visual interest, and adding a sense of movement and texture to the garden.

One of the things I love most about grasses is their sheer diversity. From the delicate, wispy forms of hair grasses to the bold, architectural presence of miscanthus, there’s a grass for every garden style and design challenge. I’ve used them to create soft, billowing borders, to add height and structure to mixed perennial beds, and to define pathways and seating areas with their strong, upright forms.

But grasses aren’t just about their physical characteristics. They also offer a beautiful range of colors, from the vibrant blues and reds of switchgrass to the elegant, silvery tones of blue oat grass. And as the seasons change, these plants transform, with some putting on spectacular fall displays and others maintaining their interest well into the winter months.

Overcoming Invasion Concerns

Of course, as a responsible gardener, I understand the concerns some people have about the invasive potential of non-native grasses. It’s a valid issue, and one that I take seriously. That’s why I’m always careful to select species that are well-suited to the local climate and ecosystem, and to monitor their growth to ensure they don’t become a problem.

In my experience, the key is to choose grasses that are well-behaved and non-aggressive, and to use them in a thoughtful, carefully planned way. I’ve had great success with native species like switchgrass and prairie dropseed, as well as more exotic varieties like maiden grass, as long as I’m vigilant about their spread and take steps to contain them if necessary.

Ultimately, I believe that the benefits of using ornamental grasses in the garden – the visual interest, the environmental benefits, and the sheer joy of watching these plants dance in the breeze – far outweigh the risks. With a little care and attention, they can be a wonderful addition to any landscape.

Conclusion: Embracing the Transformative Power of Grasses

As I reflect on my journey as a garden designer, I’m struck by how much my perspective on ornamental grasses has evolved over the years. What once seemed like a simple aesthetic choice has become a powerful tool for defining space, creating depth and movement, and bringing a sense of natural beauty to the garden.

Whether I’m using grasses as edging, hedges, or mass plantings, I’ve learned to appreciate the unique qualities of these plants and to harness their transformative power. By understanding their forms, textures, and growth habits, I can create garden spaces that are not only visually stunning, but also functional and inviting.

As I continue to explore the world of ornamental grasses, I’m excited to see what new and innovative ways I can find to incorporate them into my designs. I know that with a little creativity and a deep respect for the plants themselves, I can help my clients define their outdoor spaces in truly elegant and memorable ways.

So if you’re looking to breathe new life into your garden, I encourage you to consider the power of ornamental grasses. Whether you’re seeking to create privacy, define distinct areas, or simply add a touch of natural beauty, these remarkable plants have the potential to transform your outdoor oasis in ways you never imagined.

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