Ornamental grasses bring beauty, motion, and a soft, romantic look to beds and borders
Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutifolia), a deep green, very vertical grass waving feathery plumes of blond flowers, paired with Russian sage (Perovskia), rudbeckia, or tall yarrows like ‘Coronation Gold.’
Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), a very fine-textured green grass sporting a bleached-blond mane of flowers in late summer, with Santa Barbara daisy, lavender, Salvia greggii, or small agaves. Invasive warning: No longer recommended for California.Oriental fountain grass, a dense blue-green mound of grass carrying fluffy pink, caterpillar-like flower heads, with ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, bearded iris, and pink shrub roses. Pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), a dark green grass bearing a cloud of pink flower panicles, partnered with asters and smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) or Dalea capitata and bush morning glory (Convolvulus cneorum). How to care for ornamental grasses Weekly irrigation is sufficient for most established grasses, and many get by with considerably less water. Don’t bother with fertilizing ― they look better without it. Leave your chemicals in the garage; pests and diseases rarely affect grasses. To keep plants from looking ratty, cut them back once a year in late winter or early spring when new growth appears at the base. Cut the clumps back to just a few inches above the base. Grasses also need dividing when they outgrow their area or develop bare centers. Where to buy Most nurseries sell a variety of grasses that thrive in your area. The following mail-order sources also carry good selections. Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544; (541) 846-7269; free catalog within U.S. ($5 in Canada).
Digging Dog Nursery, Box 471, Albion, CA 95410; (707) 937-1130; free catalog.Heronswood Nursery, 7530 N.E. 288th St., Kingston, WA 98346; (360) 297-4172; catalogs $5-$8. Plants of the Southwest, Agua Fria, Rte. 6 Box 11A, Santa Fe, NM 87501; (800) 788-7333; free catalog.
Further readingThe Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, by Rick Darke ( Timber Press, Portland, OR, 1999; $49.95; 800/327-5680). Darke, the author and primary photographer for the book, has spent decades researching, growing, photographing, and designing with grasses. Beware of invasive grasses Though undeniably beautiful, many grasses need to be used with caution. They produce large amounts of seed, easily dispersed by wind, and have the potential to be invasive. If you live close to fragile wilderness, be especially careful. Choose grasses native to your region, or, before planting, check with county extension offices to see if any ornamental grasses are potentially invasive in your area. Don’t plant giant reed (Arundo donax) in California or the Southwest, jubata grass (Cortaderia jubata) or pampas grass (C. selloana) in coastal California, or green fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) in Southern California or the Southwest.