The welcome sound of gentle rain greeted me on this Monday morn, and while it may temporarily hamper my efforts to wage my daily war on weeds, even a little moisture is cause for celebration. During the past week, it became increasingly evident that this summer’s heat and minimal rainfall has taken a major toll even on our native plants, as many trees and shrubs are shedding leaves and much of my wetlands meadow has become brown and crispy.
The welcome sound of gentle rain greeted me on this Monday morn, and while it may temporarily hamper my efforts to wage my daily war on weeds, even a little moisture is cause for celebration. During the past week, it became increasingly evident that this summer’s heat and minimal rainfall has taken a major toll even on our native plants, as many trees and shrubs are shedding leaves and much of my wetlands meadow has become brown and crispy. Although temperatures and humidity have moderated to some degree, making it more comfortable for those of us who tend our gardens, the drier air has sucked what little vitality remained in many of my plants and I fear a profusion of casualties as the season progresses.
Despite the bleak outlook for some moisture-loving plants in my landscape, my ornamental grasses seem to thrive from year to year despite weather extremes offering a diversity of forms, colors, and textures. There is an inexplicable attraction to these simple plants that is gradually winning over even the most reluctant dirt-diggers. In recent years, many landscapers have discovered the many positive attributes grasses afford including low maintenance, hardiness and multi-season interest and many commercial plantings now display attractive groupings of grasses. Their growing presence is bringing hesitant gardeners into the nurseries to give them a try.
The term “ornamental grass” is currently applied to a wide range of plants including true grasses, sedges and rushes, most of which share similar characteristics in that they demonstrate linear leaves and do not produce brightly colored floral displays. There are grasses to suit nearly every cultural condition including sun or shade, wet or dry. There are a few that are evergreen and still others that offer pleasing winter interest. Add to this adaptability a wonderful diversity of foliage colors, including varying shades of green, gold, blue, burgundy and variegated varieties, and forms ranging from low prostrate clumps to towering 10-foot specimens, and the stage is set for a spectacular array of low maintenance plants to provide an appealing contrast to adjacent perennials or shrubs.
Perhaps the most popular and best known ornamental grasses are members of the Miscanthus family, commonly know as Japanese silver grass or maiden grasses. Characterized by slender, slightly arching foliage, ranging in size from delicate 3-foot specimens to giants up to 12 feet tall, these elegant grasses form sturdy, upright clumps that can be used as dramatic, architectural forms, focal points or accents, or as a hedge or backdrop in the perennial border. Their graceful lines and curves connect plantings or soften hardscapes including walks, foundations and fences. Clumps are particularly lovely when backlit by the sun; add droplets of early morning dew and the effect is all the more enchanting.
Members of the Miscanthus family perform best in moist soils, full sun and good winter drainage but are tolerant of a wide range of conditions once established. Silky plumes shimmer in the autumn sun as they sway in the breeze and provide textural contrast in addition to sound and motion, especially during the stark winter months. Clumps enlarge gradually but sufficient space should be provided initially as their dense, fibrous root systems make division challenging. Spring transplanting is preferred and a saw may be required to divide an established clump. Withered foliage should be sheared as close to the ground as possible before new growth appears in early April.
Numerous Miscanthus cultivars are available. A popular selection is zebra grass (Zebrinus) that displays horizontal yellow stripes on its statuesque 8-foot leaves although I prefer Porcupine grass (Strictus), which is similar in appearance but more upright and less apt to flop during inclement weather. Recent additions, including little zebra and the dramatically striped gold bar, offer more compact specimens that are ideal for smaller spaces. For a delicate, see-through quality, try Gracillimus or morning light with particularly slender foliage, while silver feather (Silberfeder) has especially large plumes that appear earlier in the summer. Sensational, eye-catching clumps are provided by the longitudinally-striped green and white Variegatus, its shorter counterpart, Dixieland, or the broad bold leaves of Cosmopolitan.
Switch grasses (Panicum) are equally lovely additions to the landscape, offering a similar upright architectural presence in the landscape while displaying a slightly more delicate appearance in addition to being considerably easier to divide and relocate. Airy open seed heads give a hazy effect in late summer and early autumn. Several cultivars offer blue-tinted foliage reaching heights of 3 to 6 feet including Dallas blues, prairie sky and heavy metal; Shenandoah boasts red to burgundy splashes on its leaves as the season progresses. These hardy grasses will acclimate to nearly any soil type in sun or part shade.
The family of fountain grasses (Pennisetum) is another favorite characterized by dense mounded clumps of narrow arching leaves and late summer flowers that resemble fuzzy caterpillars or bottle brushes. Several selections of Pennisetum are currently available including a number of compact 2-foot varieties including Hameln and Cassian; Karley rose creates a taller accent in the garden producing soft rosy pink plumes while another recent introduction called fox trot displays especially large seed heads. Perhaps the most irresistible of all the ornamental grasses is the purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum rubrum) which exhibits stunning burgundy leaves and long, elegant, arching flowers but regrettably, this sensational grass must be treated as an annual. The fountain grasses thrive in moisture-retentive, well-drained soils and full sun but adapt to a wide range of conditions.
Plant one or more of these carefree ornamental grasses in your garden this season and enjoy their beauty for years to come.
Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.