Ornamental grasses in the landscape

Crimson or Purple-Leafed Fountain Grass- One of the most popular ornamental grasses for its showy burgundy foliage topped by red-purple plumes. It grows 3-4 feet tall and flowers June through fall.

Ornamental grasses have a variety of elegant and architectural forms, which, combined with arching, or upright stems, feathery inflorescences and subtly colored seed heads, make an outstanding display. Just with a little planning, ornamental grasses can be mixed with any foliage, flowers and shrubs.

Unlike lawn or turfgrass varieties, ornamental grasses are meant to grow, not be cut or mowed, and used as ground cover.

Grasses are often confused with other grass-like plants, particularly bamboo, sedges and rushes where each belongs to a separate family. Other grass-like plants often used in the landscape are perennials such as liriope and mondo grass. Although these plants are not true grasses, they can be used in conjunction with ornamental grasses.

True grasses almost always have hollow, round stems, with solid nodes at regular intervals. Grass blades extend in two ranks from a sheath that can be split or peeled back. Grass flowers are borne in panicle, racemes or spiked.

Using ornamental grasses can be a little confusing, however with a little planning they can be used to their best potential. Most ornamental grasses show off their best features when they are backlit by the sun. Many taller grasses can serve as backgrounds for shorter perennials and annuals or as barriers to hide unsightly areas. Many of the taller grasses also come in a dwarf variety.

Ornamental grasses, such as fountain grasses and plume grasses, can be used as cut flowers in arrangements and bouquets. Also dried flowers and seeds from many ornamental grasses can be used in dry flower arrangements.

These grasses are rarely bothered by pests or diseases and require minimum care, except for a yearly trimming in the spring and division every few years. Spring is the proper time to plant. Fall is the time to view the beauty, the color and structure of these grasses.

Many local nurseries have ornamental grasses on display and for sale. Many can be ordered through catalogs. The following ornamental grasses are some of the most popular:

• Crimson or Purple-Leafed Fountain Grass- One of the most popular ornamental grasses for its showy burgundy foliage topped by red-purple plumes. It grows 3-4 feet tall and flowers June through fall.

• Dwarf Fountain Grass- The smallest dwarf fountain grass used in rock gardens but also can be used in small flower gardens.

• Oriental Fountain Grass- A small, clumping grass prized for a showy pink foxtail seed head that arches out 12-16 inches from glossy, blue-green leaves.

• Feather Reed Grass- A popular ornamental grass with a distinct upright habit that tends to grow straight and upright. This 6-foot-tall grass has a full seed head that looks great all year long.

• Hardy Pampas Grass or Plume Grass- One of the giants of the grass world. It has robust, gray-green leaves which create a dense foliage 4-5 feet tall and wide. In fall the foliage will turn shades of orange, beige, tan, brown, and purple with a fluffy, cream-colored panicle that persist into the winter.

• Maiden Grass- Another popular ornamental grass with narrow, silver, mid-ribbed leaves on clumps 5-6 feet tall. The copper-colored flowers will appear in late September rising 1 -1 1/2 feet above the foliage.

• Blue Fescue- A dense, clumpy, evergreen, cool-season grass with blue or gray foliage to 18 inches. There are many new cultivars now available.

• Scouring Rush- A dramatic garden accent with jointed, rush-like foliage in wet areas. They grow 1-3 feet tall with evergreen foliage turning from grayish green in the spring to greenish bronze in the winter.

• Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switch Grass- All these grasses are in the clump-forming member of the tall prairie grasses. In the wild these plants often reach 4-8 feet tall, but in a garden excessive fertilizer and moisture causes it to break over.

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