I admit it. I am an ornamental grass junkie. From the moment I first set eyes upon a photograph of a grass garden by the local landscapers Oehme & VanSweden more than 10 years ago, I was hooked. Ornamental grasses have been an unending source of fascination, investigation and pleasure for me ever since.
Grass is grass, you might say. Ah, but these are the very royalty of grasses; the "hair of the earth," garden writer Carole Ottesen has dubbed them: scintillating, majestic, lush. Their queen, miscanthus sinensis, commonly called maiden grass, should be the envy of any hula dancer, swaying gracefully in the tiniest breeze. Its flowers are called inflorescences: "Gracillimus," "Graziella," "Sarabande" (my favorite), "Cabaret," "Morning Light," "Flamingo" (with pink inflorescences) and dozens more, in sizes from 3 feet to 9 feet.
Feathers and towers
Some grasses tower over us puny humans: miscanthus floridulus, for example, with its brilliant green, straplike leaves can grow to 12 feet, and Ravenna grass (erianthus ravennae) with flower plumes shooting 10 feet or more into the air, for all the world like a frozen fountain. Or they can be as small and feathery as 4-inch bear grass (festuca gautieri, syn. scoparia) or the blue fescues (festuca glauca) softening the edge of a patio, woodland or lawn. They can have the bold and imperious presence of Japanese blood grass flaming in an autumn sun, or encroach with rampant charm on every inch they can steal, even in partial shade, as does "Gardeners Garters" ribbon grass (phalarius arundinacea).
Naturally, I have several of these beauties in my garden, the small size of which has not prevented the use of some fairly large specimens. Instead, I let them exuberantly command center stage from mid-August onward, accented by rudbeckia "Marmalade" and "Maxima," sedum "Autumn Joy" and some inexpensive, repotted chrysanthemums from the garden center. "Sarabande" is at the heart of the garden in sympathetic company with a semi-dwarf weeping apple (Smokey Mountain Limbertwig); at its feet, fragrant herbs cluster like acolytes: rosemary, lavender, sage, hyssop, several different thymes, oregano, marjoram, santolina and Cheddar pinks. Between the corners of two garages a golden twig willow, Japanese quince and "Graziella" block the intrusive view of a neighbor's above-ground swimming pool.
A row of pennisetum alopecuroides (fountain grass) in the center planting island edges the driveway-cum-patio and nods across it to the willow tree, arching and sighing like a Greek chorus in every breeze. In the narrow bed beside the garage, the fine-leaved, almost gauzy miscanthus "Morning Light" and a panicum virgatum, "Warrior," with a rose aura nudge between a rabbit-eye blueberry on the west, and an azalea and an old-fashioned Japanese maple on the shady eastern end, covering up the remains of July's day lilies and shielding my unaesthetic compost pile from sight. The grasses' display continues throughout the winter, as they are bleached by frost to a warm almond color, lending movement and light to what could have been a dreary corner.
Hardy and fertilizer-free
Lest you think I am influenced solely by outward appearances, however, let me hasten to add that ornamental grasses deserve a place in the urban garden for other important reasons. Besides being stunning focal points or low-maintenance ground covers, ornamental grasses are extremely winter hardy and drought tolerant, establish quickly on average or even poor soil and effectively stabilize it. They need only be cut back once a year, TTC to six inches in late winter before the new growth appears. For the ecologically minded, they require no fertilizer (though they appreciate mulch and compost from time to time) and have no known pests or diseases, and so need no sprays, dusts or other chemicals that might harm children, pets or the environment.
Additionally, ornamental grasses coordinate nicely not only with most ground covers, but especially with early bulbs (when the grass has been cut back to a few inches tall in late winter), growing up as the bulbs fade to cover the unsightly, dying foliage of daffodils, tulips, hyacinth -- whatever your fancy in bulbs may run to. Later, their still modest size serves as a pleasing background to bearded and Siberian irises, shrub roses, day lilies and numerous other perennials. When the blooms of the latter are finished, the grasses are just coming into their own to assume their full size and elegant stature in the late summer garden.
For more information on ornamental grasses, please see your local library. I also recommend:
"Ornamental Grasses," by Carole Ottesen
"The New American Garden," by Carole Ottesen
"Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses," by John Greenlee
An informative and descriptive catalog of hundreds of grasses and perennials is available from Kurt Bluemel Inc., 2740 Greene Lane, Baldwin, Md. (410) 557-7229.
Ary Bruno is a master gardener volunteer with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, and manages an organic farm, Koinonia, north of Baltimore.
Pub Date: 7/14/96