By Glenn DiNella
A landscape without ornamental grasses is like a day without sunshine. Elegant beauty aside, these great garden plants possess a number of wonderful attributes. Most grasses offer interesting tufts of blooms that begin in summer and last until it’s time to cut them down in late winter to encourage strong new growth in spring.
Grasses also are incredibly heat tolerant and drought resistant. And I love that they change shape and color so much throughout the year: from small, fresh green tufts in spring … to full-fledged, eye-catching anchors in summer … to strong, colorful, often-blooming contributors in fall … to khaki dried arrangements in winter.
By late winter you can cut them down to the ground and let the entire process begin anew. This is best done as a two-person chore, with one person holding the grass in a bunch, and the other person carefully using manual hedge clippers or electric hedge trimmers to cut the stalks. As a one-person task you also can lasso the grass bunch with twine and then cut it. It’s just easier than cutting and raking up all the trimmings.
One grass gaining popularity in the Southern landscape is purple muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). It starts out as a small, unassuming green grass in spring, but it really comes into full glory in fall, when its wispy plumes take on a smoky-pinkish hue.
Muhly can look great as one of three accent plants in a garden—it's best to plant it in odd numbers in an asymmetrical landscape. But it really looks stunning when planted in masses and backlit by a rising or setting sun.
Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is another hardworking favorite. I’ve never managed to actually kill one, which says a lot about its tenacity. You can find numerous cultivars, but most stand 4 to 6 ft tall; have long, thin leaves; and offer up small tassels of silvery blooms that shimmer when backlit by the sun.
Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) (please don’t pronounce it “pompous grass”) is one grass that can stand on its own. Use it to anchor a corner of the house, or let it stand alone in back of a mixed border.
You might even use it as a living trellis for morning glory or another delicate vine, as seen here. This big heavyweight can reach 8 or 10 ft tall in a few years, including the tall stalks of puffy blooms, and gets a few inches wider each year. Cut it down to 2–3 ft every winter, and divide it every few years to keep it in check.
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