The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Ornamental Grasses Offer Tremendous Variety in Color, Size and Shape

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

A Kentucky bluegrass plant in a flower garden is more weed than wonderful, but some grasses can make attractive additions. From the bold to the delicate, ornamental grasses offer variety in texture, size, color and form. Some are excellent in naturalized areas providing winter cover and food for wildlife. Grass flowers and stems provide color and interest all year. Many grasses are just now flowering. The flowers can be used in fresh and dried flower arrangements or left for winter interest.

Ornamental grasses can be used in a variety of ways such as in a flower border, as edging or as background. Many of the smaller grasses such as mosquito grass, Bouteloua gracilis, and the blue fescues make excellent plants for rock gardens. Some of the grasses are particularly tall. At 10 to 12 feet tall the giant Chinese silver grass, Miscanthus floridulus, can provide a privacy screen in just one growing season.

Although most of the grasses prefer at least six hours of sun, some do quite well in shade. Included in the shade lovers are our native bottlebrush grass, Hystrix patula; northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium; and golden variegated hakonechloa, Hakonechloa macra aureola. Grasses also offer the joy of stumbling over the pronunciation of some really interesting names.

Ornamental grasses offer variety in color. One of our native grasses, little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, has bluish stems which change from dark red to purple to bronze colored through the fall and winter. The two to three foot tall perennial is useful in the middle or front of the garden or as a ground cover in a naturalized garden. It is drought tolerant and winter hardy.

Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, looks very similar with its bluish stems, but as its name implies it reaches a height of four to six feet. Its flowers appear in August and September and look like a turkey foot hence its other name, Turkeyfoot. It has light bronze fall color and is effective as a specimen plant or as a quick screen.

Other exceptionally fine blue-leaved grasses are switch grass, Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' and blue oat grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens. I particularly like 'Heavy Metal.' Even at three to four feet tall, it holds up well against our winter winds.

Or how about some red leaves with red switch grass, Panicum virgatum 'Rotstrahlbush.' The delicate panicles of flowers appear as a purple haze over the 30 to 36 inch tall plant. Master Gardener Aporn Surintramont says the flowers hold their color well when dried if they are picked when they first open.

Ornamental grasses require minimal maintenance. In early spring, the old growth should be removed and old clumps can be divided. They are seldom bothered by insects or diseases and require little fertilizer. Many are warm season grasses and are late to wake up in the spring so be patient. It is best to do some homework before selecting grasses. Many are not hardy through our winters and some can be aggressive growers.

Suggested references include Ornamental Grasses: The Amber Wave by Carole Ottesen or Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses by John Greenlee.

To obtain plants, check local garden centers, Grand Prairie Friends booth at Saturday Farmers Market at Lincoln Square or obtain catalogs from: Kurt Blumel, Inc. 2740 Greene Lane, Baldwin, MD 21013; Andre Viette Farm and Nursery, Rural Route 1 Box 16 Fisherville, VA 22939; or Limerock Ornamental Grasses, RD 1 Box 111-C, Port Matilda, PA 16870.

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