The elegant, flowing plants are easy to care for.
NO GARDEN IS complete without at least a few deciduous ornamental grasses. These elegant, flowing plants are usually drought-tolerant, generally pest-free and require little care. Impossible to shear into formal shapes, ornamental grasses add a wild, untamed element to the garden. Planted en masse, taller varieties provide a spectacular flowing screen, while groupings of lower-growing grasses create the illusion of a windswept meadow.
Planted singularly or in repeated patterns, fine-textured ornamental grasses soften the harsh effect of large rocks, boulders and walls, and contrast beautifully with bold-textured perennials. They are an interesting component in many container designs, and their leaves and flowers make long-lasting additions in flower arrangements.
Deciduous ornamental grasses add interest in all seasons. The leaves on many turn glorious shades of orange, purple or gold in fall; their showy flower spikes often persist until spring; and the strawlike foliage contrasts beautifully with evergreen shrubs and provides motion in the winter garden.
There’s an ornamental grass for every situation. If you’re looking for an extremely hardy, upright grower with a striking architectural form, you’ll love feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’). The most popular of all ornamental grasses, it can reach 8 feet tall, but rarely exceeds 2 feet wide. It’s a great grass for adding motion, and the foliage sways in the slightest breeze. The buff-colored, vertical plumes that form in early summer remain upright and attractive all winter.
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For those preferring a lower-growing species, give pennisetum (fountain grasses) a try. Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’ is a wee thing reaching only about a foot tall, with green leaves that turn bright yellow in fall. It sports bristly little pinkish bunnytail flowers, as does ‘Little Honey’, the variegated version of the same plant.
My favorite fountain grass is Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’. Imagine a 1½-foot mound of gray-green foliage covered with fluffy, rose-pink foxtails from June until August, and foliage that turns rich gold in fall.
Most deciduous ornamental grasses require full sun, but there are two highly colorful varieties of hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) that thrive in shade. Hardy to minus 20 and forming graceful 1½ -foot-tall fountain-shaped mounds, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (golden-variegated Japanese forest grass) has leaves that are heavily striped with cream, chartreuse and lime green, and take on beautiful tints of pink and red as temperatures cool in autumn. Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ features bright golden leaves on slender stems, creating the appearance of a tiny golden bamboo.
Finally, Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) is native to the Southwest and Mexico, yet can handle temperatures to about minus 10. It forms a dense green 2-foot-tall by 3-foot-wide upright clump of very fine leaves, topped by silver, feathery inflorescences from June until September. The problem with this grass is that after a year or two, the clumps sometimes lose their upright shape and become floppy. Fortunately, it seeds around politely, so if the parent is unsightly, dig it out and replace it with an upright seedling in spring.
Generally, the only maintenance required on deciduous ornamental grasses is cutting the strawlike foliage to the ground in spring as soon as new growth appears. At the same time, dig and divide any clumps that are thinning in the middle. Avoid cutting back or dividing deciduous grasses in fall, as it makes them prone to root rot; plus, the strawlike foliage provides winter habitat for wildlife. Don’t be in a hurry to remove spent grass flowers in the fall, either. They’re filled with highly nutritious seed for birds.