Grow glorious grasses in your landscape

by C.L. Fornari

Look at your landscape in September. Do you see the graceful movement of grasses in autumn breezes? If not, your yard is missing some easy, first-rate plants.

Ornamental grasses are perfect for planting around swimming pools, in flower beds or shrub borders, and even in containers on your patio. Whether you live in Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., there are glorious grasses that are perfect for your garden.

Garden centers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions stock ornamental grass varieties that range from 18 inches to more than 5 feet tall. These plants are valuable because they add texture, color and movement to the landscape.

Grasses grow thickly as well, so they beat out the weeds. This makes them ideal components for a low-maintenance garden. They're also valued because they look stylish from spring through most of the winter.

Surprisingly, one of the best grasses for our region is often overlooked. Panicum virgatum, commonly called switch grass, is native to this area and thrives in all types of soils. Switch grass comes in a number of varieties that are prized for foliage color and soft, airy seed heads.

This ornamental comes in several foliage colors. "Dallas Blues" and "Prairie Sky" are two cultivars that have blue leaves. "Prairie Fire" and "Ruby Ribbons" have red foliage, and the straight species, P. virgatum, turns golden in the fall.

In the wild, with no fertilization or supplemental water, switch grass usually grows to 3 feet tall. In irrigated landscapes with amended soils, however, this grass can reach 5 feet tall and wide. If you want your switch grass to stay shorter, don't water or fertilize.

Another native grass that isn't very familiar to gardeners is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a blue foliaged plant with beautiful fall color. Little bluestem grows to about 18 inches tall and does best in sandy soils or garden loam, although if planted on slopes it will also thrive in clay.

In the wild, little bluestem grows in a community with flowering plants such as asters and goldenrod. In more formal landscapes, you can place these plants close together in groups of five or seven to make a good show of this shorter grass.

For those who find a rounded shape appealing, fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) is ideal. Although it's not native to the eastern United States, this plant is well suited to the landscape in our region. Fountain grass appreciates regular irrigation, and its even shape looks tidy without any care.

Fountain grass forms foxtail flowers in the fall, and these plumes wave over the foliage for three months or more. Like little bluestem and switch grass, fountain grass should be planted where there's at least five hours of direct sun.

Other grasses that are easy and well suited for landscapes in this region include Miscanthus "Yaku Jima" and the shade tolerant Hakonechloa macra "Aureola" and Carex "Evergold." All of these add motion and grace to your garden.

C.L. Fornari is a writer, gardening expert, professional speaker and radio host who is dedicated to getting you into the garden. The Osterville, Mass., resident is a member of the Perennial Plant Association, American Plant Propagators Society, National Speakers Association and Garden Writers of America.

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