Ornamental grasses enhance and showcase your flowers and shrubs

Your flower beds are finally free of weeds and you want to showcase your annuals and perennials with something special. This could be the perfect place for ornamental grasses.

Last time in this column, I discussed the best ways to evict those wretched weeds from your flower beds and prepare the soil for planting. If you missed that column, you can find it archived at my Web site www.landsteward.org when you click on “The Plant Man”. Look for the one titled “Attack weeds early.”

Sometimes, even the most beautiful shrubs can look rather forlorn, simply plonked down in a flower bed, particularly if placed in front of a stark wall or an ugly fence.

A comparison might be buying a really attractive piece of furniture and positioning it in a bare room with a nasty, stained wall behind it! Somehow, its beauty is lost in that environment. But as those shows on HGTV demonstrate, a complimentary backdrop and some well-placed accessories can make all the difference, creating a stage upon which your special piece stands out as a star.

To take this idea to your flower beds, consider adding ornamental grasses.

The right grasses can provide an eye-pleasing backdrop and a buffer between your shrubs and a fence or wall. They can compliment and enhance the shape and color of your plantings, and many can provide attractive greenery long into the winter when there’s little else to attract the eye. I happen to think that shimmering, frost-covered spikes on a crisp winter morning are a truly beautiful sight!

So what should you choose? As always, I’m happy to offer specific, personal advice via e-mail if you send me some details at [email protected] but let’s start with a few basic ideas...

Tall grasses can provide the ideal backdrop for flowers and shrubs. Try these:

Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’)
This is quite a “large” grass and is a favorite of ours due to its fine, narrow foliage and gracefully round form. Maiden Grass blooms from mid to late fall and grows 4 to 6 feet tall and 4 feet around. I recommend about 48 inch spacing between plants. It grows quite fast and is dense enough to obscure any unattractive fencing behind it. It is also fairly deer-resistant when mature and is quite drought resistant. A very nice addition to berrying plants and evergreens.

Porcupine Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’)
This is a variegated form of Maiden Grass and grows to about 5 feet tall, flowering in September. The gold bands on the foliage create a really interesting streak of color. Like its Maiden cousin, Porcupine is a fast grower and can tolerate sun, partial sun and shade.

Looking for smaller ornamental grasses to integrate with your other plants? Try these:

Blue Fescue (Festuca ovina glauca Elija-blue)
Elija Blue is the bluest of all the blue fescues, and really creates a stunning effect when planted with flowers and small shrubs that produce pink or red blooms. Try planting Elija Blues with dianthus (pinks). Around June, you’ll see tall, flowering spikes rising from the fine-textured clumps that spread approximately 18" - 24".

Pennisetum Little Bunny.
A cute name for a really cute ornamental grass that grows less than one foot tall! It is ideal to plant in front of perennials, and works well as a ground cover or with dwarf conifers and rock gardens. At our house, Cheryl and I planted Little Bunny in French drains in front of our home. It is deer-resistant, sun tolerant, and gives us these beautiful tufted plumes in late summer. The blooms persist into winter but we often harvest and dry them for flower arrangements. If you’d prefer a variegated version, look for its cousin, “Little Honey.”

For one that is not too tall and not too small, but just right, consider this one:

Dwarf Grass (Pennistum Hameln)
This is just about our favorite! Its finely-textured foliage and compact growth made it ideal to plant in front of our own house. We love the flower clusters that appear in summer and fall, earlier than most other varieties. They top out at about 2 to 3 feet at maturity and look great year round.

I hope this has given you some ideas for enhancing the look of your flower beds (and, indeed, much of your landscape) without spending too much of your hard-earned cash!