By Scott Calhoun
Even in a region known for cactus, we have a wide range of native grasses that tolerate heat, drought, and flooding. They also lend soft texture and color to garden beds that teem with sculptural plants such as agave, yucca, and mesquite. Note the pink muhly grass paired with the Texas honey mesquite above.
Here are some of the best grasses for desert gardens, and some tips for keeping them looking their best:
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), pictured, is known for seed heads that resemble eyelashes. Its new growth is a nice medium green, with seed heads that rise above the top of the plant toward the end of summer and into fall. During winter it turns a tawny color but keeps its shape and provides forage for birds. Try pairing it with groundcovers such as skullcap, verbena, or lantana. Blue grama grows to about 18 in tall and wide.
Mexican feather grass is another grass for desert gardens with showy growth. It has perhaps the finest texture of any of the commonly grown ornamental grasses. Its thin blades begin growing vibrant chartreuse green early in spring, then fade to a pretty yellow in winter.
It mixes well with cacti, as shown here, or with native perennials such as primroses (Oenothera). Avoid planting in wet areas or in regions where Mexican feather grass has proved invasive. If it does spread around by seed, seedlings are easily removed. Mexican feather grass can reach a height of about 2 ft.
A larger growing specimen, bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa), imparts a zen spirit to a garden bed, although like the other grasses mentioned above, it is a Southwestern native. As shown here, it is handsome on its own in a pot, or you can mix it among perennials or annuals.
All the grasses I’ve mentioned send up seed heads in fall but also have interest in other seasons. Grasses stand out among other perennials and should be included in nearly every garden.
What are some of your ornamental grass favorites, and how do you use them?
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