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Ask a Master Gardener: Ornamental Grasses: A Gardener’s Friend

By Barbara Boone, Mobile County Master Gardener

Have you ever taken a glance around your outside spaces and thought, hmmm, everything looks good, but could something be added to take it over the top? The neat, well-maintained lawn is freshly mowed. Colorful annuals, blooming perennials, and green foliage are all doing their part, but is there another element that could enhance the overall appearance even further?

An answer to that is a vast group of plants known as ornamental grasses, mostly perennials, not to be confused with grasses that are sodded and mowed. Not all plants labeled as ornamental grasses are “true” grasses. “True” grasses are in the Poaceae family, including lawn grasses, cereal grains, and some garden plants such as bamboo.

The term “grass” has become a way to describe plants with narrow leaves to include “true” grasses, sedge, rushes, and even cattails. Despite ornamental grass taxonomy, a real benefit of these plants is their versatility in providing texture, interesting shapes, movement in a gentle breeze, and either vibrant or understated color. However, one major benefit to gardeners is the reduced maintenance these plants require. Many of what we call ornamental grasses originated in prairie environments where the sun was constant, rainfall uncertain, soil quality variable, and a range of hardiness zones from 4 to 9. Planting an ornamental grass is straightforward, placing the plant even with the soil surface in ground or in a container. Once a year, usually late winter or early spring, tie growth up with twine and trim several inches above the ground, promoting new growth. The trimmings then provide seed heads for wildlife. These positive points make ornamental grasses a feature that could enhance curb appeal in your landscape without much effort.

Approximately 10,000 grasses globally are in the ornamental group. The focus here is 5 that would enhance your landscape and provide the attributes above.

· Pink muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris, grows in clumps about 2 feet high and 3 feet wide with pink to purplish flowers in a wispy, cloud-like display. Muhly grass grows well in sandy soil and is often used in beach settings, along roadsides, or in front yards as accents.

· Pampas grass, Cortaderia selloana, a native to South America, can reach heights of 4-8 feet. Pampas grass, with its light-colored plumes, is often used as a background plant for height or as a plant to conceal something unsightly like a light pole or air conditioner unit.

· Fountain grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides, grows about 5 feet in height with thin and graceful plumes that catch a breeze for a showy appearance.

· Mexican feather grass, Nassella tenuissima, makes a graceful backlit backdrop or border plant for brighter flowering plants. Their feathery plumage grows to 3-4 feet.

· Morning light miscanthus, Miscanthus sinensis, plays well with other grasses as well as flowering plants because of its outstanding, almost spikey, texture.

If you don’t have an ornamental grass specimen in your garden, research all the options you have considering plants already in place. The best time to plant is in the spring, so the grass has time to get established before winter. An ornamental grass will add to that enhanced curb appeal you are looking for.

Pink Muhley Grass by Theresa Davidson

Mexican feather grass in the landscape by Molly

Fountain Grass by Barbara Boone

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