Few of us are thinking about our lawns this time of year, but that does not mean we can’t be thinking about grass.
I don’t mean overseeding with rye grass for the winter or devising strategies for suppressing stubborn torpedo grass come spring. I mean ornamental grasses, those lovely, clumping varieties that sway in the breeze and come in a variety of heights and colors.
Picture pampas grass, a giant native of South America that grows in huge clumps up to 10 feet tall and has fluffy, white blooms at the end of each long, skinny leaf. Now picture something about one-third the size of pampas grass, perhaps in a purple, blue or silver hue. The former is great for highway landscaping, the latter for home garden designs.
The most stunning variety of ornamental grasses that we see blooming this time of year is Pink Muhly grass with its gossamer clouds of pink blossoms that hover over the tops of the leaves like in a cotton-candy haze.
Growing just 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide, this grass can fit into a home garden nicely and provide a stunning accent specimen. Another possibility: Instead of using it as an accent, a long row can form a low-growing hedge.
Purple fountain grass has long been a favorite of local gardeners, adored for its graceful habit, the dark burgundy-purple hue of its leaves and the delicate foxtail blooms at the end of each blade.
Like Muhly grass, it grows only about 3 feet tall and wide, so it makes an ideal accent plant for a home garden. The same goes for “Fireworks,” a variety of fountain grass that the LSU AgCenter named a Super Plant in spring. Its overall habit is the same as its cousin, but the new growth is streaked with shades of pink, red, green and white until later in the season when the coloration becomes more uniform.
Dwarf fountain grass rises just 2 feet tall and puts out shorter, finer leaves and blooms than its full-sized relatives. In growing season, its leaves are green and contrast well with the white or buff-colored blooms at the end of each leaf. In the fall, the foliage turns a rusty bronze and, finally, a wheat color.
Zebra grass displays some of the willowy, swaying style of the fountain grasses and makes a statement in the garden, thanks to its horizontally banded leaves. The dwarf version of this grass, “Little Zebra,” grows to a lesser height (about 2 feet tall) and displays wine-colored blooms that stand above the foliage.
Northwind switchgrass was named the “Ornamental Plant of the Week” by the LSU AgCenter a few months ago and the Perennial Plant Association’s “Plant of the Year” in 2014. Why? This native grass has an upright, vase-shaped habit (as opposed to fountain-like) and features olive green leaves with attractive panicles that branch out from the foliage near the top, creating a diffuse and airy look.
Because the plant grows to a height of almost 6 feet, it won’t fit in all urban gardens. But should you have a bio-swale or rain garden that needs planting, Northwind comes highly recommended.
An ornamental grass with a culinary use, Lemongrass is grown for its fragrant leaves, which can be dried and used in tea or used fresh as lemon flavoring — without the bitterness — in a variety of Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Plant it in an herb garden to add a vertical accent or in a pot so you can move it indoors when low temperatures threaten.
For fragrance, there may be no better grass than Vetiver, a grass native to India that is used to control erosion because its deep roots anchor it to the soil and help hold the soil in place. Its stiff stems grow in clumps up to 5 feet tall. Essential oils are used in many perfumes, and Vetiver extract can also repel termites, as one LSU AgCenter researcher has discovered.
Ornamental grasses are easy to grow, virtually pest free and tolerate a variety of growing conditions. Most do best in full sun, though some tolerate partial shade. If foliage persists through winter, cut it down before spring to make way for new growth.