GREEN FEEL In addition to true grasses plants like lomandra and phormium are beautiful year round. — contributed

GREEN FEEL In addition to true grasses plants like lomandra and phormium are beautiful year round. — contributed

 

Throughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions, but in the fall especially I hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden.” There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of ornamental grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many kinds of grass and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too.

Grasses are versatile plants and come in all sizes, from ground-huggers to shrub-like clumps. Some form upright tufts, some look like mop-top mounds and others form arching fountains. They easily adapt to the same conditions most garden plants thrive in, rarely needing any special soil, preparation or maintenance. And more subtly, their gentle movement and soft whispering sounds can bring your garden to life as no other plants do. 

There’s ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf or shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems that help control erosion. There are other grass-like plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon. 

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture, light and movement of a grass would be perfect, look to the taller varieties. Stipa gigantea (Giant Feather Grass) is a semi-evergreen grass that grows 4-6 feet high and makes a stately specimen with narrow, arching foliage and shimmering gold panicles that reach even taller. The flowers open early in June silvery-purple and mature to shades of wheat. Large plants in full flower are a spectacular sight. Their tufted, clumping form makes them suitable as accents anywhere. They take drought conditions once established but also will grow with regular garden watering. The beautiful flower spikes are good in dried arrangements.

Miscanthus purpurascens (flame grass) grows 4-8 feet tall in the sun. Their magenta leaves turn to milky white in winter while Maiden grass sports narrow upright leaves 5-8 feet tall with creamy flowers. Their seed heads float and bounce in the breeze. Planting them just above the horizon allows you to enjoy their swaying and dipping backlit at sunset.

Besides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn't admired the burgundy foliage of red fountain grass? It’s one of our most popular grasses with its fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Another favorite of mine for color is Japanese blood grass. You’ll love this grass when you place it so the sun can shine through the brilliant red blades. This grass spreads slowly by underground runners and grows in sun or partial shade forming an upright clump 1-2 feet tall. Pink muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so amend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought-tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage.  his grass is extremely drought tolerant once established. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight.’ If you like blue foliage, try Elijah Blue fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show-stopping combination.  

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well-drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2 inches of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.

Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at janis001@aol.com, or visit jannelsonlandscapedesign.com.

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