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Ornamental grasses

Ornamental grasses may be grown in your garden amongst the flowers or clumped in an open space for a natural effect and to add a vertical dimension. If you decide to add ornamental grasses to a flower garden, choose the grass type carefully, for some grasses are extremely invasive and others may cast unwanted shade over your flowers.

Ornamental grasses differ from lawn grass in that frequent mowing weakens and eventually kills them. They can be small, clumping ground covers like blue fescue or the popular mondo grass, or stately spires like Chinese Silver Grass, towering to twenty feet. Some grasses, like Red Switch Grass, have beautiful fall color. For an ornamental grass with strong colors try Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’. It has tallish straplike blades of deep burgundy mixed with a green that is almost jade.

Tall grasses can be stunning used as a single specimen in the middle of the lawn, or in a garden with trees and rocks. Most grasses have few diseases or pests to worry about and nothing could be easier to care for, so if you are pushed for time or not into major gardening, ornamental grasses may be the ideal solution.

The beauty of many grasses is not only in their leaves but the seed. Often seed is born in tall spires above the clump and not only hangs on for months, but offers food to insects and birds. Pennisetum villosum has soft and fluffy seed heads in the late summer, while the delicate feathery seed heads of Stipa calamagrostis will last right through to fall. Stipa gigantea is a larger variety as the name suggests. Many seed heads last for ages when picked and dried and make wonderful indoor decorations.

Many grasses also have flowers that can be attractive, like Melica uniflora, which has tiny, beadlike flowers borne on slender, arching spikes. Thev Melica uniflora requires shade to grow well and looks fantastic teamed with ferns. Some grasses like Lamarckia aurea, are annuals. This one has unusual downswept flower spikes.

Shorter grasses can also be used for borders and edgings, enclosing pretty annuals within a green framework. Blue fescue grown with black mondo grass can give an unusual and effective, yet extremely simple appeal in a small garden if grown in a checkerboard pattern. Use the grasses alone, with small, clumping annual flowers or even squares of white pebbles to give a lift. Phalaris arundinacea ‘Feesey’s Form’, a less common variety, has a white stripe down the center of the leaf that makes it most attractive.

Many woodland grasses thrive in heavy shade in spite of the root competition of overhanging trees, because this is similar to their natural habitat, so if you have a spot that is difficult to grow flowers in, think in terms of ornamental grasses instead.

Beware! Ribbon Grass, though beautiful, is one of those that are extremely invasive. Plant it in a bottomless container to prevent it from spreading.

Red Baron or Japanese Blood Grass, so called for its beautiful coloring also spreads, but is not so invasive as Ribbon Grass. Lemon grass, while not madly attractive, can be picked and steeped in boiling water for a calming tea.

There are many other beautiful grasses for the garden other than those mentioned above. The only trouble is in deciding which ones to leave behind...