Adventures in Gardening: Ornamental Grasses

by David Soper

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If you are looking for an easy way to add color and a vertical effect in your garden, look to the grasses.

For all their beauty, and that is considerable, I can't think of a plant that requires less from the gardener. Grasses are very undemanding, low maintenance and easy to cultivate.

How simple are they? Just dig a hole, plant and water for the first month and leave them alone. Next year, in early spring, when you can see 4" of new growth, cut off the old. Water weekly for the first month. Once established, they won't usually require any additional water.

When you leave the foliage over winter, you provide a haven for birds and other critters and you can enjoy the sort of sculptural beauty of the various seed heads.

The range of choices is incredible. You can have little black grass not more than 6" tall (Black Mondo Grass- Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') to the giant Ravenna Plume Grass (Eiranthus ravennae) topping out at 14' and just about every size in between.

I suggest you look for your grasses among the perennials. Annual grasses are okay, but don't always reseed where you want them. They will, of course, live their whole lifecycle in just a year.

Perennials can take three or four years to reach a mature size. Save time and look for container plants at your local nursery or buy by mail.

Here are some personal recommendations:

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' is one of the smaller versions of Maiden Grass, growing only to 5 or 6 feet in full sun. It produces spectacular seed heads that dry beautifully and make excellent winter arrangements. 'Gracillimus' and its relative 'Morning Light' are two of the less coarse Miscanthus.

Stipa tenuissima or Mexican Feather Grass is a small grass that stands two feet tall. I grow it in pots. This is a grass that looks like a woolly pet. In fact, hardly any of my garden's visitors can resist petting it. Its feathery blades are green in the summer and a golden tan in winter.

Cortaderia sellona 'Pumila' is a dwarf form of the popular Pampas Grass, with much better manners for the smaller yard. It matures at around four feet and produces the characteristic full plumes in the fall. This is a show stopper and very easy to grow.

Finally, be sure not to plant grasses too close together. A useful rule of thumb is to space them apart at a distance equal to their ultimate height.

David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Check out his books at

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