USING ORNAMENTAL GRASSES IN YOUR RESIDENTIAL LANDSCAPES
WRITTEN BY KATHRYN O’SHEA-EVANS
When creating alfresco wonderlands, landscape designers utilize every option in their toolbox: trees to supply rigid structure and flamboyant and showy annual flowers as eye candy (much like adding jewelry to an outfit). But their ultimate secret weapon might just be ornamental grasses. Dotting your garden with these plants is akin to giving your landscape a good hair day: they provide romantic texture and practically dance, catching the wind in a poetic way that can calm the senses.
Photography by Neil Landino Jr.
“My esteem for ornamental grasses has increased in the years as I have gotten to know them better and use them in all different ways,” says Janice Parker, principal of Greenwich, Connecticut-based Janice Parker Landscape Architects. She recently employed salt-tolerant grasses in a waterfront estate and layers of native grasses edging a woodland, both in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “And of course, they are deer resistant, which makes them all the more valuable,” she says.
It’s no wonder you will spot ornamental grasses on the grounds at some of the world’s most famous gardens, including painter Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, France, where he lived from 1883 to 1926—and reportedly planted Reed Canary Grass for texture. Longtime Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour has famously let the ornamental grasses at her forty-acre home near the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island run wild, with uncut meadows that juxtapose against manicured boxwoods.
“Ornamental grasses are one of the bigger players in environmental gardens,” says Parker. Her expert advice on how to use them? Plant them with different perennials in groupings with other plants that share their cultural requirements (i.e. water and sun needs). As with interior design, variety is key for a layered look that holds your interest. “Be careful to mix ornamental grasses with other shapes and forms of plants to complement their linear foliage and create a visual balance,” says Parker.
Some of our favorite easy-to-grow, low-water ornamental grass options? The artfully tufted, sculptural blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), which can grow up to four feet tall and is hardy to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) up to a towering eight feet tall and as eye-catching as they come, with feathery seed heads that are often cut and dried to add visual interest indoors, too. (You can see the latter flourishing if you tour the grounds at The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina; the outsized stature of pampas grass jives perfectly with the circa-1889 chateau, said to be the largest private home in the nation with 178,926 square feet of floor space.) Parker recommends grasses in the Pennisetums, or fountain grass, family; native to Asia and Africa, they often feature bottlebrush plumes that add a lacey flourish in any landscape. “They are absolutely the most valuable ornamental grass that I use,” she says. “It’s well behaved—it doesn’t grow too tall or too short. It will attain the perfect height around eighteen inches to three feet. The blooming in the fall can be a dusty purple or silvery white plume ‘feather’ and it is utterly gorgeous. Mass these grasses [by planting many of them together], and plant liberally. You will not be disappointed.”
hues at home
Not all grasses are created equal. What flourishes in the humid, lush air of Honolulu, Hawaii might not grow so abundantly in Scottsdale, Arizona. We recommend consulting your local nursery for the best native ornamental plantings in your region. In the meantime, here are a few vivid grasses that suit their respective planting zones and can add vibrant hues to your landscape.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium coparium). USDA Zones 3 to 9. Beautifying gardens from dry southern Texas to Des Moines, Iowa, this dainty, delicate prairie grass changes colors from blue green to merlot purple to autumnal orange throughout the year.
Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum). USDA Zones 9 to 10. Gardeners love the firework-like effect of this beauty, which suits southern climates but can also thrive in chillier regions when it’s planted as a perennial.
Elijah Blue (Festuca glauca). USDA Zones 4 to 9. The serene, spa-like blue of this grass can add an aura of contemplative calm to most middle to southern regions. Bonus: it’s the ultimate in low maintenance—preferring minimal water and loamy soil—yet has maximum impact.