Native Grasses in the Garden

One of the more exciting trends in gardening today is the use of grasses, not for lawns, but as ornamental plants. Even though they do not have showy blooms, grasses can add graceful beauty to gardens and landscapes.

With long narrow leaves and upright habit of growth, grasses have a fine texture, which can provide interesting contrast to other plants in flower gardens.  They can also be used alone as accent plants in the landscape. Many grasses produce attractive seed clusters and have foliage that changes color at the end of the summer.  The dried foliage of grasses can be left standing through the winter, adding movement and texture to the landscape when garden flowers are dormant and tree branches bare.

Little Bluestem and Coneflower seedheads. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Many of the grasses being used in landscaping today have their origins in Asia and Europe. There are a number of different grasses from our prairies, however, that also make excellent ornamental plants. These native grasses possess the added advantage of being well adapted to our soil and climate.

Big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass are three tallgrass prairie species that make attractive plants in the garden or landscape. Growing 4-6 feet in height, they can be used in flower beds and borders as screens and as accent plants.  Switchgrass is the most common of these added to landscape designs because of cultivars like ‘Northwind’, ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and ‘Totem Pole’, which offer consistent height and color year after year.

Like the leaves of certain trees, the foliage of these grasses also changes color with the onset of fall.  Big bluestem is particularly noted for its reddish fall color. Each of these species also produce distinctive seed clusters that add interest to the plant toward the end of the growing season. The seed clusters are shaped like a turkey’s foot.  Indiangrass produce attractive golden plumes.  Switchgrass seed cluster are open and feathery.

Indiangrass plumes. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Sand lovegrass is another attractive taller species. It grows 3-4 feet tall and is found in sandy prairie areas.  It produces graceful arching foliage and open, airy seed heads.

Although found throughout much of the Great Plains, little bluestem and sideoats grama are two grasses that are particularly characteristic of the mixed grass prairie region of central Kansas. Both make beautiful additions to gardens and landscapes.

Little bluestem is a fine-textured, clump-forming grass that grows 2-3 feet tall.  Its landscape value is enhanced by its attractive reddish coloration late in the growing season. There are several selections that offer nice winter coloration and sturdy habit.

Beautiful little bluestem in fall. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Sideoats grama is of similar height.  The most ornamental attribute of this grass is its beautiful seed clusters.  The seeds hang gracefully from one side of the seed stalk, giving the plant a windswept look, even when the air is still. The Sioux Indians called this plant “banner-waving-in-the-wind grass.”

Prairie Dropseed is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough, that they are often planted in mass in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.

For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native grasses for granted. Yet these plants with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Switchgrass and big bluestem. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Five Grasses You Should Be Using In Your Landscape

I am always in search of the tough, resilient plants that stand out in any challenging landscape.  Certainly, ornamental grasses fit into this category.

They are increasing in popularity because of their texture, form/structure and interesting seed heads.  Another reason their popularity continues to grow is that they require minimal care and provide year-round interest.

Ornamental grasses are a diverse group of perennials that expand the plant palette of any design, but many of them get too tall for a typical landscape application.

This week, I wanted to make note of some of the dwarf grasses in our gardens.  As you know, fall is the best time of the year for most grasses.  They are showing off their attractive plumage and the beautiful fall colors are beginning to develop.  These five grasses have worked for me, and can be found next week at our Fall FloraKansas Plant Sale:

 


Blue Grama-Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’         

This Blue Grama Grass is apparently on steroids.  I cannot believe how vigorously it grew this year, ultimately reaching two feet tall. This taller form has bright blue-green leaves that are topped by a host of eyelash-like golden yellow flowers.  They wave in the wind and ambitiously last from summer into the fall and winter months.  I used it along a walkway but it is so attractive that it could stand on its own providing many months of ornamental interest.   This beautiful grass was discovered by David Salmon of High Country Gardens.

Blue Grama Blonde Ambition

 


Little Bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Carousel’

At home in a formal planting or prairie garden, you don’t have to sacrifice anything by planting this Little Bluestem.  Carousel remains stiffly upright even through the winter.  The gentlest breeze puts the plant in motion.  The blue-green leaves are highlighted by pink that gradually turn to rich copper, pink, and mahogany tones in the fall.  It truly has a carousel of color.  It provides a beautiful backdrop to perennials like coneflowers or black-eyed susans. This graceful, low maintenance Little Bluestem will provide a form that can be used in any sunny landscape.   Other garden-worthy varieties of Little Bluestem are ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Blue Heaven’

Carousel

 


Prairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepis

At one time, this was the top selling native grass in the country.  To see a mass planting in full bloom, you can understand why it is so popular.  The narrow leaves form a perfect fountain of green.  In late summer, the fragrant airy seed heads develop.  Some liken the fragrance of the blooms to buttered popcorn.   With this plant, you can get your theater popcorn fix without all the calories.  It requires almost no maintenance once established.  Fall color is burnt orange and rivals Little Bluestem in mass plantings.  A shorter form of Prairie Dropseed worth trying is the variety ‘Tara’.

Prairie Dropseed

 


Switchgrass-Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’

WOW! This grass is spectacular this year.  They are totally saturated in reds and purples.  Most switchgrass varieties get four to five feet tall, but not ‘Cheyenne Sky’.  It forms an upright three foot clump.  The vibrant red color hues begin to develop in early summer followed by reddish flower clusters in August and September.  The leaves rustle with the slightest breeze and sway in the wind adding movement to the garden.  I use it in containers, groupings or as a specimen plant by itself.  It is a very versatile and beautiful grass.

Cheyenne Sky

 


Fountain Grass-Pennisetum ‘Little Bunny’

We have been thrilled with this miniature fountain grass.  It puts on a show during the summer when the tiny cream seed heads pop up over the cascading green leaves.  The seed heads resemble little bunny tails, hence the name.  We have found it to be a reliable performer in the perennial borders and  when planted in mass.  If you have limited with space, then this grass would be a great choice.

Little Bunny

Questions: Which of these grasses have you tried in your landscape?  What steps do you need to take to integrate more grasses into your garden?