Classy Grasses

March 1, 2015

Whether it’s to cover a slope, enhance a rock garden, perk up a wet area, create a meadow, or fill some other landscaping need, ornamental grasses come to the rescue! Listen to learn more about these versatile and attractive plants.

This segment of The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Musings podcast series was written by George and Becky Lohmiller and is read by Heidi Stonehill, an Almanac editor.


         One way to reduce lawn mowing on your property is to plant more grass. This may seem a bit paradoxical but by planting some of the ornamental grasses you may be able to do just that. More and more gardeners are turning to carefree ornamental grasses to eliminate much of the work that is associated with [gardening and] lawn care.

         Unlike conventional grasses, ornamentals don’t need regular mowing, seldom require fertilization, and are rarely bothered by insects or disease.  Sedges, rushes, and other grass look-alikes are also considered ornamental grasses providing a huge variety of plants that are suited for just about any application. There are tiny tufted grasses like the silvery-blue sheep fescue that work as a ground cover or hardy rock garden plant and towering giant bamboos that can turn a stroll in your yard into a jungle adventure.

         Grasses are very colorful plants. The blades and feathery plumes display bold greens, soft blues, rosy reds, purples, and tans that change with the seasons. A real attention-getter is Japanese Blood Grass, a two-foot high perennial that starts in the spring with green blades with red tips and turns increasingly red as the season progresses. This variety is spectacular when planted en masse or when back lit in a night garden.

         Extremely versatile, grasses can be planted in [mass] a group, mixed with other grasses, or used as accents with shrubs and flowering perennials. Try massing tall fluffy varieties like pampas grass and feather reed grass to form a showy hedge or screen, or plant it as a backdrop for smaller plantings. Use tough low-growing buffalo grass to control erosion on a slope or to create a drought-tolerant no-mow meadow. For wet spots, good choices that will even grow in standing water are sweet flag and cotton grass.

         Grasses can be started from seed and transplanted into the garden or purchased as mature plants from a nursery and set out along with annuals and perennials. Be sure to find out if the varieties you choose have special growing requirements such as soil type and preference for sun or shade.

         Grasses are tough and, once established, will endure extremes in growing conditions but will greatly benefit from a bit of pampering at planting time. Since young grasses may resemble grassy weeds, thoroughly weed the area prior to planting. Mix compost thoroughly into the soil, and apply a light application of a complete fertilizer like 5-10-10. Water thoroughly in the absence of rain for the first couple of weeks, or until new plants [seem] get established.

         At the end of the season, the stems and seed heads of quite a few ornamental grasses can be harvested and used in wreaths and dried arrangements, so even if you don’t like the mowing lawn, you just might get a lot of pleasure in cutting a little grass.

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