Ornamental grasses can add texture, style to landscapes

-- By Alabama Living Magazine

By Katie Jackson

Grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. It may be pink, blue, purple, gold or ivory. It may be feathery, spikey or strappy. It may be as high as an elephant’s eye or low as a turtle’s shell. And it can look stunning all year long with little more than an occasional trim. 

No, I’m not referring to the turfgrasses that carpet our yards, but to the many low-maintenance, highly functional ornamental grasses that can, even in winter, add glamour and style to landscapes of all sizes and styles. 

The term “ornamental grasses” actually refers to a variety of species from several plant families (true grasses, sedges, reeds and cattails among them), all of which have grass-like leaves and tend to be hardy, drought-tolerant and require little grooming. Though these plants share many attractive similarities, what makes ornamental grasses so attractive in the landscape is their diversity.  

Depending on the species, ornamental grasses may have weeping to upright, towering to ground-hugging and mounding to clumping growth habits. Their slender leaf blades may be feathery, spiney or lance-like in shape, and exhibit an array of solid or variegated colors in shades of green, pink, purple, red, yellow, gold, silver, taupe and more. 

Many of these plants produce flowers or seed heads that add extra interest to the landscape, and many change colors with each season or create striking silhouettes in winter. In addition to their visual allure, ornamental grasses also provide sensory appeal as they move, rustle and whisper in a breeze. 

Because of this diversity, there’s likely an ornamental grass suited to every garden niche. They can be used as stand-alone accent and focal plants, mixed with other plants in garden beds or to create a meadow, mass planted on hard-to-mow areas, used to form borders and privacy or wind screens and grown indoors or out in containers. 

As wonderful as ornamental grasses are, however, they should be chosen with care. Some may grow quite large, require specific growing conditions and may be invasive. In fact, a number of known invasive varieties are still available at plant centers, so don’t buy until you’ve done your research. Start by browsing through catalogs and guidebooks to identify varieties best suited to your growing conditions and design goals. Then get expert advice from your local Cooperative Extension office, Master Gardener association, botanical garden, native plant or wildflower organizations about which ones are truly good choices. 

Alabama is home to some gorgeous native options such as muhly, bluestem and prairie grasses, not to mention switchgrass and broomsedge. These choices provide exceptional habitat for wildlife and pollinators, too! 

Ornamental grasses can be planted in fall (before a hard freeze) or spring. Water all newly planted grasses well and mulch fall plantings to protect their roots from low winter temperatures. Once established, most ornamental grasses need only an annual pruning (preferably in late winter or early spring so they can grace the winter landscape), possibly dividing every 3-4 years and a light application of fertilizer in spring and late summer. 

Check recommendations for your chosen varieties to get specific planting and care instructions, then revel in the knowledge that the grass on your side of the fence may not be green, but it may well make your neighbors green with envy.

November Tips

  • Plant or transplant most trees and shrubs.
  • Water newly installed plants as needed.
  • Plant spring-blooming bulbs, strawberries, salad greens and cool-season annuals.
  • Prepare tools, equipment and irrigation systems for winter.
  • Use fallen leaves as mulch or in compost heaps.
  • Water houseplants less.
  • Keep birdfeeders and baths full and clean.
  • Fertilize cool-season turfgrasses and check lawns for weeds and pests.
  • Clean dead or diseased plants and trash from garden beds, orchards and landscape areas.
  • Store lawn and garden chemicals safely.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.

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