Gardening With Ornamental Grasses

__By our Zonal Horticulturist Kellen Goodell__

There is no plant in the garden more dramatic, dynamic, and yet simple as grasses, or more specifically, ornamental grasses.

Hailing from the vast “true grass” Poaceae family of plants, the right selection of species offers movement, sound, and year-round interest to any type of landscape. Add being inexpensive and requiring minimal maintenance, and the question is not “Should I plant them?”, but “Which varieties and how many?!”

There are an array of species and varieties from all over the world. Knowledge of your climate and site can narrow your selection down to a simpler palette. Then the fun really begins.

Blending different species of grasses; which have a multitude of shapes, hues, growth habits, fall and winter color, and bloom periods has a captivating effect in a garden. When planted in the right quantity, repetitions, and drifts, the effect is even more natural and emotive. The swift and bright spring through summer growth fills space quickly and gives way to the seed heads and bronze, rusting colors of late summer and fall. In the winter, the fully grown and now dormant plants rustle in breezes, creating sound and movement in a mostly sleeping garden. Grasses not only evolve through the seasons but also throughout the day as they provide different experiences based on sunlight angles and cloud conditions. They also offer structure and catch snow, lending an active winter mood when many other plants have frozen or been pruned.

Ornamental grasses are extremely low maintenance plants. Gardeners of any skill level can cultivate a large number of them with very minimal time and effort. They transplant easily as plugs or 1-gallon plants and grow quickly. Once established, they are drought-tolerant. Outside of a little bit of tidying and very minor clipping during the season, they only need one hard prune in the late winter to completely clean up and recharge the plants for another season of ever-changing year-round interest. Ornamental grasses also don’t require any added natural fertilizers, plus they mingle well with other flowering perennials.

Some of the most common and (mostly) native ornamental grasses we use in plantings in Charleston’s parks are Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), Little Bluestem (Schizochyrium scoparium), Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’), They are one of the last things, along with roses, that get pruned before new spring growth emerges. We prune our ornamental grasses in late January and February, including the thousands of grasses at Colonial Lake, which will begin January 31st and February 1st.

Ornamental grasses are an invaluable element to a garden’s design, large or small. This coming year, take note of their rapid growth and constant evolution through the day and the seasons. Enjoy the sounds and sight of their movement in the slightest of winds. Take a look at how well they play with the plants around them, touching but not harming or depriving in the slightest. Experiment with a few varieties in your own sunny gardens. And each winter, get your shears and pruners sharpened and ready for their once-annual haircut.

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