By Mary Glazer
When I was new to landscape plants, I was puzzled the first time I heard the phrase “ornamental grass.” Was this a lawn decorated with too many garden gnomes? Eventually I learned there is a distinction between turf grasses (requiring a lawn mower) and ornamental grasses.
Ornamental grasses range in height from the short (2 to 4 ft) variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica) to the tall pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), which can reach a height of 12 ft.
What I like best about ornamental grasses is their easy maintenance and versatility. In my part of the Gulf Coast, where winter freezes are the norm, I might have to cut back my grasses once a year. In parts of the Gulf Coast without freezing temperatures, gardeners don’t even have that chore.
For versatility ornamental grasses are a terrific group of plants. The shorter ones, such as variegated flax lily, look super either massed, to fill a landscape bed, or as a single plant in a container.
Taller varieties, including pampas or fakahatchee grass, look attractive either alone, as showy center-stage accent plants, or clustered in a group. For privacy a row of tall ornamental grasses works well as a screen. Yet the natural cascading form of their leaves, especially in a breeze, offers a visual softness to the eye.
Visual appeal with grasses is one thing; touch is something else. Many have razor-sharp edges. I remember living in Orlando when my son was young. A pampas grass, which the previous owner planted too close to the play area, was a harsh reality when retrieving errant softballs.
Other grasses, such as muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), offer attractive shimmering purple-golden plumes in fall. With the sun at a lower angle, a cluster of muhly grass on the westernmost side of a building really pops as the light shifts in late afternoon. Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) has purple foliage in addition to its purple plumes.
In an edible landscape lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a bonus, not only for its visual appeal but also as a key ingredient in many Thai and Vietnamese culinary delights. Several gardening friends also are great cooks who take pleasure in harvesting their plants for use in the kitchen. Not me—I lost the desire to cook after age 50. I would rather dine at my favorite restaurant, where a savory meal with lemongrass is served—while the lemongrass in my garden remains intact.
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