By Susan Albert
Ornamental grasses claim a spot in almost everyone’s landscape, partly because of the huge variety to choose from and also because they require little care. In fall eye-catching seed heads punctuate their year-round beauty.
The taller varieties, such as maiden grass, add wonderful texture and movement to the landscape. They can serve as a screen when planted en masse, or as a specimen when planted alone. Medium-size grasses, such as dwarf fountain grass, look great among a perennial border or planted in a container. The shorter grasses, for example Mexican feather grass, are well suited for rock gardens or for edging a border.
Winter-hardy ornamental grasses need to be cut back close to the ground each spring to allow for new growth. That’s also a good time to sprinkle a slow-release fertilizer around the plant. Then, every three or four years dig up the clump and divide the grass into four or more pieces. Large grasses can be tough to cut apart—you need an axe or saw. Replant it or share with the neighbors.
Many Oklahoma and Texas gardeners prize ornamental grasses for their drought tolerance, an important attribute during hot and dry summers. Most grasses prefer full sun, but northern sea oats tolerates some shade.
Here are some ornamental grasses that do well in the South-Central region:
- Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is widely popular. You can choose from many varieties, including variegated and zebra-stripe. They exhibit graceful, arching stems that rustle in the breeze, and lots of plumes for fall and winter interest. (See the specimen above.) Heights range from 4 to 6 ft, depending on the cultivar, and maiden grasses are hardy in this region.
- Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) is a soft, billowy grass that starts out green in the spring and matures to golden by summer. Use this Texas native for edging or as a ground cover, but expect it to reseed easily. Mexican feather grass, which grows 1 to 2 ft tall and wide, is hardy in our South-Central region.
- Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) is a popular commercial selection, but dwarf pampas grass may fit the home landscape. Green, arching stems flow from the center, and white, fluffy plumes rise above the foliage. This hardy grass reaches 6 to 10 ft.
- Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) is ideal for mixed perennial borders, rain gardens, or foundation plantings. Depending on variety, fountain grasses grow from 2 to 5 ft. Their graceful green foliage evolves from golden to beige in fall. Fountains of bristly seed heads bloom in late summer, giving fountain grass its name. Hardy in the South-Central region.
- Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) is a showy, 3-to-5-ft burgundy-leaf grass with feathery burgundy-red blooms. Hardy in Zones 9–10, it also is a popular annual in my Zone 6 garden. Here it is shown at the Woodward Park Complex in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
- Ruby grass (Melinis nerviglumis) is one of my favorites. Striking blue-green foliage reaches about 10 to 12 in. It stays compact, and blooms all summer with pink to white plumes. Hardy in Zones 8–10.
- Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is most noted for its airy, rosy-pink flower spikes in fall that from a distance look like a cloud. The wiry foliage forms a clump about 2 ft tall, with pink to red spikes adding about 12 more inches. Hardy from Zones 5–9.
- Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is a Texas native that has bamboolike foliage, and attractive seed heads that fade from green to copper in fall and are suitable for dried arrangements. While the seed heads make a nice statement, allowing them to remain all winter ensures many seedlings to come. Sea oats, often called woodland oats, grows 2 to 3 ft tall and is one of the few grasses that tolerate shade. Here is one in Marta Harris’ woodland garden. Hardy in Zones 4–9.
- Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica) is one I’d like to try. Striking red accents, which deepen as the summer wears on, top the green foliage. Though Japanese blood grass is a clumper, it spreads by underground runners, which concerns me a bit. It’s hardy in Zones 5–9.
There are many more grasses -- including sedges -- that can liven up a landscape with movement and winter interest. What are some of your favorites?
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