Ornamental grasses are the gateway to a fabulous garden, and they make you see the world in terms of color, form and texture. That is why landscape designers are so addicted to ornamental grasses, which are outstanding in all three of these aspects.
Grasses are easy to grow, flowering in the dog days of summer when all else is hunkered down to wait out the heat. And no plant can offer such a sizable impact for less money, as their fast-growth capability adds real zest to a garden seemingly overnight.
Late summer is the best time to shop for grasses because they will be in bloom. This shows the nature of the plant and how they look in the landscape. Spring grasses are just a tuft of leaves, hardly enough to help us know how they'll look at peak season. The beauty of grasses at summer's end is that they can go right into the beds and borders for an instant autumn pick-me-up after flowers fade.
Many ornamental grasses bear colored foliage, while others are standard green during the growing season. Purple fountain grass is the hallmark of colored species, with maroon leaves and lavender flowers. Other species offer sapphire-blue foliage, with still more in golden yellow or lime green. Using these colors alone or even in masses can create a dramatic result. When the grass foliage is used against a contrasting background, the color literally pops.
Form is the basic outline of a plant and its growth habit. Ornamental grasses vary considerably. The perfect hemisphere of the fine blades of blue fescue makes this grass a favorite of the modern designer. Other types feature nodding forms that can look like fountain spray when in full bloom. There are also some species that are straight and tall, the grass spiking high in the air to catch the wind. And when the breeze sends these ornamentals into nod and sway, they turn into the most animated plants in the garden.
Grasses are textured plants. The narrower the grasses' leaves, the more finely textured they are. Some coarse, tropical grasses offer blades fully 2 inches wide, while the hardy, cold-weather fescues are notorious for their needle-fine spikes. Texture makes grasses seem vaporous in the landscape compared to other rigid plants with solid volume and form. The key to exploiting texture is to play the grasses against more rigid or larger-leaf plants to enhance their contrast.
There are more grass species and varieties on the market today than ever before. Many are imports from around the world that flourish in a variety of climates. Others are old standby species that have been bred into new colors and sizes to improve on their best qualities.
Most ornamentals are bunch grasses, which develop a large crown just above the soil, composed of many different points. The roots can extend many feet deep in the soil to tap moisture while the surface dries out in the heat. In late summer, these plants send up spikes of fluffy flowers pollinated by the wind. In the fall, with the coming of frost, the flowers remain upright, ready to shed their seed. With the frost comes a foliage change, the leaves turning russet or gold. These warm colors stand out in sharp contrast against the first blanket of snow. With the onset of early spring, the dead chaff is cut away from the crown allowing the new growth to rise unhindered.
Grasses are a cheap and elegant way to fill in a sparse landscape. Buy them in bloom to know exactly what you're getting. Insist on labels that stipulate the height and diameter of the plant at maturity. Then plant your grasses, test them out and discover the magic that results when you learn to use grasses well.