By Marty Ross
Ornamental grasses are part of the Midwestern gardening legacy — they’re at home on our range. But grasses are not just for wide-open prairie gardens and New Age meadows; they invigorate gardens of every style.
“We use quite a bit of grasses in our designs. From an aesthetic standpoint and from a habitat standpoint we love them,” says Matthew Schoell-Schafer, a landscape architect at Vireo, an environmental design company with offices in Kansas City and in Omaha, Nebraska.
Ornamental grasses are good choices for low-maintenance landscapes, and they are natural elements in gardens designed for birds and butterflies, Schoell-Schafer says. The inspiration comes from our surroundings. “When you’re trying to re-create a little bit of the aesthetic of the prairie,” he says, “flowing grasses are a primary plant material.”
Prairie grasses are well adapted to city life, being polished performers in flowerbeds. The effect is most dramatic when they cluster together. Don’t plant just one grass, Schoell-Schafer says, plant five. Also resist the temptation to plant five different species; stick with one species in a group.
Masses of grasses have the most impact, he says. “It doesn’t have to be anything complicated.”
At Powell Gardens near Kansas City, ornamental grasses make up the heart of the meadow garden, a sweeping interpretation of a tallgrass prairie landscape. Native grasses eloquently capture the spirit of the prairie, says Alan Branhagen, Powell Gardens’ horticulture director and a native-plant enthusiast. Branhagen’s favorite ornamental grasses are native prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) for plantings in sun, and northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) for shade.
At the Chicago Botanic Garden the naturalistic landscape of the five-acre Evening Island combines native and nonnative ornamental grasses. Strong, colorful switchgrasses (Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’ and ‘Shenandoah’), feather reed grass (Calamagrostis), and moor grass (Molinia) grow side-by-side with coreopsis, goldenrod, and other perennial flowers and shrubs, all planted in bold masses.
Most ornamental grasses are exceptionally drought tolerant and easy to care for. But the real reasons to grow them are their extraordinary textures and the movement they bring to a garden; their constantly changing interactions with the light; and because they are a rich part of our cultural landscape. This is a great time to look out for them and develop an appreciation of what they can do.
How have you taken advantage of beautiful ornamental grasses?
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