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Grasses for the Masses

By Paul James

I bought my first ornamental grasses in 1988 — four Maiden grasses, from Southwood actually — and I can’t begin to count how many I’ve planted since. It’s hard to imagine a group of plants that gives you so much bang for your buck given their beauty and carefree nature. They practically thrive on neglect, requiring little more than a blast of water during dry spells and a haircut in late winter. And they’re so darn versatile!

After all, they look good as specimens or accent plants as well as in mass plantings. They can serve as a hedge or border plant as well. They’re great for hiding air conditioners, gas meters, and anything else unsightly, and for softening brick or stone walls. They even do great in containers. Their plumes rise above the leaves and sway gently in the wind, lasting all winter and providing seeds for birds. And there’s at least one ornamental grass for any spot in your landscape — sun or shade, dry or wet soil, sand or heavy clay.

Here’s a rundown of the most popular ornamental grasses, all of which are perennial, require at least six hours of sun, and flower from summer to fall.

Maiden Grasses (Miscanthus) — The grass craze began with this group, and several selections within the group continue to be among the most popular, including the new ‘Fire Dragon’, which turns an intense orange-red in fall, ‘Adagio’, ‘Little Zebra’, ‘Japanese Silver Grass’, (all variegated) and ‘Little Kitten’. Heights range from 3 to 7 feet.  

Fountain Grasses (Pennisetum) — Another excellent group of grasses, whose members include the magnificent ‘Karley Rose’, (rosy-purple plumes are a knockout), as well as ‘RedHead’ (smoky-purple plumes), ‘Cassian’, and the hugely popular dwarf form that’s ideal for borders. Heights range from 2 to 5 feet.

Switch Grasses (Panicum) — Less well known, but no less beautiful are the Switch Grasses, and among the most popular are ‘Hot Rod’, ‘Ruby Ribbons’, and ‘Northwind’. I love them all, but I’m particularly impressed by ‘Northwind’. It grows very upright, tolerates dry or wet soil, and produces a nice, golden-yellow fall color. Expect heights of 4 to 6 feet.

Muhly Grasses (Muhlenbergia) — This native produces pink plumes that float like clouds over the foliage. Grows to approximately 2’ to 3’ tall. A gorgeous grass.

Little Bluestem Grass (Andropogon) — Native Bluestem is hard to beat, although it tends to flower a little later than others, usually beginning in September. Gets about 2’ to 3’ tall and wide.

Grama Grass (Bouteloua) — A standout in this native group of grasses is ‘Blonde Ambition’, whose flowers sway in the wind like little flags. It’s great all by its lonesome as a small specimen, and is especially effective when planted en masse. Tops out at around 3 feet.

Blue Dune Grass (Elymus) — Unlike most ornamental grasses, this one spreads by underground rhizomes, which makes it a great candidate for mass planting or erosion control. Silver-blue foliage is striking.

Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella) — The wispiest of all the grasses, the leaves of this baby move in the slightest breeze. Grows to around 2’ tall. Great in the ground or in containers.

I’ve mentioned a few other grasses elsewhere in this newsletter, but keep in mind that you really can’t go wrong with any of them.

Happy Gardening, ya’ll.

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