The tallgrass prairie once reached from the heart of the central Midwest out towards the Rocky Mountains: great-big grasses are right at home in our region. But the prairies have just about disappeared, and in our small gardens, big grasses can be a challenge to work with. They can easily overwhelm flowerbeds.
Some gardeners plant them as stand-alone specimens, but in my opinion big grasses look best in a prairie-style planting, or when they're part of a big, hardworking mixed border. Better yet, get to know the smaller ornamental grasses that suit your garden's scale.
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is my favorite small ornamental grass. It only grows to about 20 inches tall. As the summer fades into fall, its fine-textured tufts of green leaves turn tawny buff, then then bronze in winter. The late-summer flowers are just slightly pink. I love it best in fall, when the blooms smell like buttered popcorn.
Prairie dropseed is great along a garden path, perhaps with a little bit of color down in front. (That's wild petunia, Ruellia humilis, with prairie dropseed in the picture above.)
At Powell Gardens near Kansas City, I discovered Savannah grass (Melinus nerviglumis), which has handsome, long-lasting pink flowers in August and September and looks terrific with summer annuals. It grows to about 24 inches tall.
Duane Hoover, the horticulturist at Kauffman Memorial Gardens in Kansas City, grows a flashy, versatile big grass, Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light', in his spectacular perennial beds. In spring, blue and pink larkspur come up all around the variegated miscanthus. There's no hint of the wild prairie in these flowerbeds, but they're full of drama.
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