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Gorgeous Grasses: The Simple Beauty of Ornamental Grasses

Finding My Grass Groove

I’ve been gardening on my own for about twelve years now, and it took me about half of those years to catch the grass bug. As the owner of a greenhouse, I saw the increasing demand for grasses, and breeders were continually coming out with new cultivars or even discovering new selections. As an environmentalist, I knew that native grasses were essential for wildlife support, but for some reason, it took me a while to appreciate them aesthetically.

That all changed one summer when I attended several horticultural conferences. That’s when I really started noticing the endless options for how you could use grasses. One conference was held in a rural area where the buildings were surrounded by very natural-looking pollinator gardens featuring a variety of native grass species. The texture and height contrasts provided by the grasses really made the gardens pop, and the sounds and visuals of the grasses swaying in the breeze added a lot of interest. I was also really surprised by the complexity of colors provided by the grass blades and seed heads – more muted than most flowers, but still quite vibrant.

In stark contrast, the other conference was held in the center of a large city where the modern architecture and minimalist design of the building was accentuated by mass plantings of bluestem and fountain grasses in vast swaths, and the steps and entries were bordered by giant planters using grasses as their key feature. Safe to say, all of these beautiful and useful uses of grasses finally clicked for me, and I became a grass groupie. I’ve experimented with selling and planting a multitude of species and varieties in the years since, and now have a wide variety in my yard that I simply love.

Standout Grasses and Their Charms

Switch Grass: A Vibrant Display

One of my favorite native grasses is Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’). The blades gradually become more red throughout the season, and by fall, they are vibrantly colorful. The seed heads are airy and provide wonderful texture in addition to being an important food source for wintering birds. Another attribute is that this grass can tolerate some moisture, so if you have a lot of clay in your soil that can lead to poor drainage during rainy periods, this is a better option than many other grasses. It can stand alone, but looks best planted in groups of 3 or more, adding height, texture, and colorful foliage to your perennial beds.

Pink Muhly: A Breathtaking Showstopper

Perhaps the most dramatic native grass we have is Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). This is the powerhouse grass for fall – you have likely seen it planted in huge swaths, looking like a glowing pink cloud as the sun hits the airy seed heads. Each plant can get quite large, so you don’t have to plant a ton to have a big effect. I recommend 3 in a grouping, but even tucking one here and there will be beautiful.

Little Bluestem: A Versatile Stunner

My favorite native grass is Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) for two reasons. First, I continue to be amazed at the variation of color in the blades of one plant. And second, as Audubon North Carolina states, “It’s like planting a living bird feeder.” The seed heads that are such important bird food are profuse and provide a gorgeous texture when planted en masse. I love it as a medium-height border, and we have several selections we rotate growing – all are colorful and excellent for the birds.

Fountain Grass: Showy and Resilient

I’m also loving Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’). It’s hard to beat their showy seed heads. I try to mostly use native grasses, but do have a few of these peppered into my landscape. Hameln is tougher than most other cultivars we’ve grown – we love ‘Little Bunny’ and ‘Burgundy Bunny,’ but they aren’t as tolerant of our clay soil and wet winters. Plus, the fall color on this lovely grass is fantastic.

Corkscrew Rush: A Whimsical Delight

This native cultivar, Corkscrew Rush (Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’), is really fun for both water gardens and containers. I like adding it to my year-round outdoor combo pots as it is evergreen, and it adds a lot of fun texture to the edges of my water garden.

Carex: A Surprising Beauty

Another favorite of mine is Leatherleaf Sedge (Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’). Many question if it’s dead due to the bronze color, but most people really like it. It’s hard to beat the shape – it forms such a lovely plume in containers, in particular, and can get to be quite large, so it’s impressive in large planters.

Grasses as the Main Attraction

One of the things that really opened my eyes to the potential of ornamental grasses was seeing how they were being used in Normandy, France. While most people visit the area for its rich World War II history, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful, modern garden designs that incorporated grasses in such a seamless way.

At the entrance to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, there was a garden bed made up of two species, likely Calamagrostis ‘Karl Forrester’ and Gaura lindheimeri. The combination was perfect for the somber tone of the site – the grasses stood tall and stately, while the Gaura was wispy and low. When the wind came through, the planting had a wonderful movement and an ethereal quality that felt right at home.

As I explored the well-kept grounds, I spotted familiar North American native grasses lining the walkway to the cemetery. The combination of switchgrass and fountaingrass was repeated multiple times, softening the edges with their pink and pillowy forms, always in motion thanks to the sea winds off the beach.

But it wasn’t just the memorial grounds that impressed me. Even the parking lots in the small towns around the beaches had been thoughtfully designed with lush shrubs and thickly planted perennials, blending seamlessly into the surrounding rural landscape. The genius of these plantings was that they seemed to be well-adapted to the harsh, seaside climate, using grasses and other plants that brought to mind sandy hues and beach waves.

This level of intentional, sensitive design is something we can all strive for in our own gardens, no matter where we live. By taking cues from the natural landscape around us and incorporating native and well-adapted ornamental grasses, we can create spaces that feel balanced, harmonious, and very much at home. It’s a lesson I took to heart, and one that has greatly influenced my own approach to gardening and landscape design.

The Many Faces of Little Bluestem

One of the grasses that really exemplifies this idea of blending seamlessly with the local environment is Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). As the official state grass of Kansas, it’s found in every county of the state, producing an incredible amount of biomass per acre and hosting nine species of skipper butterflies. No fertilizer or fuss required, it will grow well in harsh conditions and poor soil, making it a great grass to add to any landscape if you want something ecologically beneficial, water-wise, and colorful.

Because it’s such an impressive plant, Little Bluestem has gotten a lot of attention from the horticultural industry, with professional breeders selecting and cultivating many new varieties. Customers looking to buy Little Bluestem now have a lot of options to choose from in terms of height, habit, and color palette. To help you decide which one might be best for your needs, here’s a comparison of several options:

Variety Pros Cons Foliage Height Total Height
Classic Little Bluestem Genetically diverse, great for restorations, wildlife areas, or pastures, usually cheaper than branded varieties Floppy, not as colorful as other options, height is less predictable 15 to 2 ft 25 ft
Jazz Short, full, and fluffy upright habit Not as colorful as other options 2 ft 4 ft
Twilight Zone Incredible blue coloration May flop if partially shaded or in rich soil, taller than some applications 2 ft 3 ft
Blaze Deep red-orange-pink fall and winter color, vigorous growth Flops easily if soil is too rich 2 ft 3 ft

No matter which Little Bluestem you choose, it will be a great low-maintenance plant, providing habitat and beauty all year long. And by selecting a variety that’s well-suited to your local conditions, you’ll be on your way to creating a garden that feels seamlessly integrated with its surroundings – just like the beautiful landscapes I encountered in Normandy.

The Year-Round Appeal of Ornamental Grasses

The use of ornamental grasses in the landscape has become more popular than ever, and for good reason. The allure of ornamental grasses is that they are tough and easy to grow. Their resilient nature reflects our prairie landscape in our own gardens, providing a nice visual contrast to many other plants like perennials, shrubs, trees, and even other grasses.

But the beauty they add to the landscape doesn’t end when the growing season does. In the fall, ornamental grasses are in their full regalia, with attractive seed heads that put on quite a late-season show. And as we transition into winter, the colors they develop are another reason we love incorporating them. However, these fall colors eventually fade, leaving us with dull shades of tan and brown.

So, what’s the best way to handle ornamental grasses as we move into the colder months? As it turns out, there are quite a few advantages to leaving them standing through the winter and cutting them back in the spring. For one, the stalks become drier and more brittle over the winter, making them much easier to cut back. I like to cut tall grasses like switchgrass and big bluestem down to about 2-3 inches off the ground, using a hedge trimmer to move back and forth across the stalks.

Another benefit is that by leaving the stalks up, you’re creating habitat for overwintering pollinators and other small creatures. And when you do cut them back, you can spread the clippings around as mulch, which helps them break down more quickly. For smaller grasses like prairie dropseed, I use pruners or a hedge trimmer to shape them, again cutting them back to 2-3 inches from the ground.

Over the years, we’ve found it incredibly beneficial to leave ornamental grasses standing through the winter. The rustling grasses will remind you of the successful season past and the promise of spring yet to come. Plus, you’ll be doing your part to support the local ecosystem, providing much-needed shelter and sustenance for the critters that call your garden home.

Embracing the Simple Beauty of Grasses

One of the more exciting trends in gardening today is the use of grasses not for lawns, but as ornamental plants. Even though they don’t have showy blooms, grasses can add graceful beauty to gardens and landscapes with their long, narrow leaves and upright habit of growth. They have a fine texture that can provide interesting contrast to other plants in flower gardens, and they can also be used alone as accent plants.

Many of the grasses being used in landscaping today have their origins in Asia and Europe, but there are also a number of different grasses from our own North American prairies that make excellent ornamental plants. These native grasses possess the added advantage of being well-adapted to our local soil and climate, and they offer the opportunity to create landscapes that feel truly at home in their surroundings.

Big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass are three tallgrass prairie species that make attractive additions to the garden or landscape. Growing 4-6 feet in height, they can be used in flower beds and borders, as screens, and as accent plants. Switchgrass, in particular, is a common choice, with cultivars like ‘Northwind,’ ‘Cheyenne Sky,’ and ‘Totem Pole’ offering consistent height and color year after year.

But it’s not just the tall grasses that deserve our attention. Little bluestem and sideoats grama, characteristic of the mixed-grass prairie region, are two shorter species that also make beautiful additions. Little bluestem is a fine-textured, clump-forming grass that grows 2-3 feet tall, with an attractive reddish coloration late in the growing season. Sideoats grama, of similar height, has the most ornamental attribute in its beautiful seed clusters that hang gracefully from one side of the stalk, giving the plant a windswept look even when the air is still.

Prairie dropseed is another favorite of mine – it’s so tough that it’s often planted in street medians, but the fine-textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles make it a lovely addition to any landscape. Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall, and the entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest.

For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native grasses for granted. But these plants with their simple form and subtle beauty can make such attractive additions to the home landscape. And by incorporating them into our gardens, we’re not only creating beautiful spaces, but also supporting the local ecosystem and connecting our outdoor spaces to the natural world around us.

So, if you’re looking to add some low-maintenance, year-round interest to your garden, I highly recommend exploring the world of ornamental grasses. Whether you opt for towering big bluestem or delicate prairie dropseed, these graceful plants have a way of elevating any landscape, reminding us of the simple beauty that can be found in nature. And who knows – you might just find yourself becoming a grass groupie, too!

Today’s Garden is Garden and Landscape Company, provides all you need about Garden and Landscape Design to get better garden decorations.

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