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The Use of Ornamental Grass in the Landscape and Garden

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I understand that sometimes grass isn’t the most exciting of all subjects. When I tell people I work with grass they think I’m either boring or a drug dealer. Yes, I know that grass isn’t as showy as the flowers in our gardens, nor does it shade us like our trees or provide food like our fruit and vegetable plants. For the most part, the role of grass in the landscape tends to be limited to a groundcover and link between other parts of the yard. It’s commonly used to form lawns that act as areas meant for human and pet activity. Rarely is grass considered a focal point in the design. But that’s not always the case. Thanks to ornamental grasses, flowers and shrubs are going to have to share the spotlight. With their graceful lines, fine textures, and interesting colors, ornamental grasses are gaining in popularity and have become a staple in landscape design. 

So Many Forms, So Many Uses

It’s easy to see why ornamental grasses have such an appeal to gardeners. With such a wide range of forms to choose from and with new forms being developed each year, never before have gardeners had such an aesthetical selection of grasses to choose from. There are now ornamental grasses to fit just about every area, need, and condition found in the landscape. They can be used as accents, groundcovers, edgings, screens, mass plantings, and even focal points. They can range from 6 inches to 10+ feet tall and can be found in shades of green, yellow, blue, brown, red, and purple. Even their seed heads provide visual interest, many forming fluffy plumes or eye-catching spikes. They are especially good at spicing up the winter landscape with their dried, dormant foliage. Many folks find ornamental grasses add the finishing touch to naturalized gardens and water features as well. 

Growth Habits and Seasonal Preferences

ornamental grass by Leonora EnkingBiologically, ornamental grass is really not much different from our traditional lawn grasses. Like lawn grass, ornamental grass comes in both cool-season or warm-season varieties and their growth habits can be classified as either clump-forming or spreading. Cool-season ornamental grasses begin growing in the spring, slow down during the summer, and continue their growth in the autumn. In some climates they can remain semi-evergreen during the winter months. The downside to these cool-season grasses is their continuous need of water during drought. On the other hand, warm-season grasses are quite drought tolerant and do most of their growing in the heat of summer. As for growth habits, be sure you know what you’re getting into before planting an ornamental grass. Clump-forming grasses will grow in neat little mounds or clumps that will increase in girth over time, eventually requiring division. Spreading grasses will do just that; spread. These spreading type ornamental grasses should only be planted in areas that require a naturalized or meadow-like look and have plenty of room to spread. 

Maintaining Ornamental Grass

Ornamental grasses typically require less maintenance when compared to other plants such as flowers, shrubs, and trees. Planting can be accomplished through division or directly from seeds. Cool-season ornamental grasses can be planted in the spring or fall, while warm-season grasses should be planted in the late spring. Before planting anything it’s best to prepare the soil by clearing all existing vegetation and working in organic matter. If sowing seed, rake it in lightly to a depth no more than ¼ of an inch. Most ornamental grasses prefer full-sun, so consider placement. After a few seasons of growth it may become necessary to divide clump-forming grasses to keep them vigorous and within desired size. To divide, simply dig up the clump of ornamental grass and use a shovel or axe to divide the clump into smaller pieces. You can plant the new divisions in other areas of the garden or give them away to friends and neighbors. This process of division should be repeated every three to five years. For winter preparation, ornamental grass can either be cut back to a height of 4-6 inches or left uncut for an attractive winter garden. 

Several Popular Varieties in Stock

little bluestem by Matt LavinHere at Nature’s Finest Seed many of our pasture-type grasses are considered ornamental, such as Switchgrass, Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Sideoats Grama, Blue Grama, Sand Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Reed Canarygrass. We also have access to several other popular ornamental species such as Prairie Cordgrass, Tufted Hairgrass, Blue Fescue, and Carex. Please contact us directly to order these species as some are not available on our website. We offer any of our pasture-type grasses in a pure species seed blend, and are available upon request. 

As more and more gardeners discover the beauty and functionality of ornamental grasses, expect the look of modern landscapes to change. No longer will grass be forced to watch as other plants are oooed and awwwed over. And just maybe someday when I tell people what I do for a living they will look at me with excitement and exclaimed, “Tell me more!” Just maybe.

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