Decorating with Grass Decorating with Grass

Grasses have a shifting beauty that's unmatched by other plants. With outlines and shapes that change not just from season to season, but from day to day and moment to moment, they are the favorites of contemporary and new wave garden designers who love to foreground change and drama in the garden. The Dutch designer Piet Oudolf is probably the best known; he recently designed the 9/11 memorial garden in New York City. His gardens mix perennials and grasses for year-round drama and structure, to produce landscapes that intensify and draw out the irregular harmony of a natural flowering meadow.

Grasses usually supply much of the structure, and also the drama, of these gardens, beginning in the spring when brightly colored new shoots emerge. By summer, they have become lush foliage, sometimes of a completely different color altogether. Flowers soon follow. Feathery or spiky, flat or round, they will turn into seed heads that continue to perform through the winter by dramatizing every change in the weather. Gardeners lucky enough to live in an area with frosts will be rewarded with living ice sculptures.

The aptly named Golden Dew (Descampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau') is just one of many grasses that puts on a spectacular show all year, making it ideal for the latest planting styles. In the summer, short evergreen foliage produces fountain-shaped sprays of delicate flowers, up to 29 inches (73 cm) tall, which turn golden every evening against the setting sun. At the end of the summer, seed-heads appear, which darken through the fall. The result is a haze of color that changes from hour to hour and season to season. Add perennials to the mix and their outlines will be softened too. Those with strong shapes work best. For example, Yarrow (Achillea) comes in many colors including red, yellow, gold and cream, and has striking plate-like flowers.

Grasses are versatile. They seem to be made for the latest planting styles, but they can be used in more traditional ways, too. To soften the edges of pathways and borders, for example, try low-growing grasses with arching stems that will hide hard edges. They come in many colors, including gold, silver, brown, orange, red and blue and just about every shade of green, so there should be no problem coordinating them with surrounding plants.

As a focal point in the garden, a large grass can be planted alone to draw the eye. For example, Stipa Gigantea, is an eye-catching grass that grows to 8 feet (250 cm). From arching dark green foliage, long thin sprays of gold oat-like flowers appear in summer. In winter, they are even more spectacular when covered with frost. This grass grows best in moist well-drained soil and full sun. For pots, try compact, colorful grasses with an arching manner that will hide the pot edges and create interest all year round. Try Hakonechloa macra. Grasses can be used for minimalist gardens, too. Large blocks of a single variety will create slabs of color and texture. Some grasses are great for flower arranging. For example, greater quaking grass (Briza maxima), has exquisite lamp-shaped flowers, which look wonderful in the garden or in a vase in the home.

Grasses may look fragile with their wispy stems and airy flowers, but they're among the toughest plants around. They'll grow in most soils and tolerate most conditions. Many are fully hardy. Be careful not to overfeed them, though, as they'll produce too much lush foliage and too few flowers. A single dressing in the spring is enough. To increase their number, divide them in the spring. Many grasses will seed themselves, but the resulting plants may not match the originals. Watch and wait, and then remove unattractive seedlings.

Grasses can be left to fend for themselves for most of the year, but they may need tidying up in the spring. Evergreen grasses won't recover if they're cut back; dead and untidy growth should be removed carefully by hand. Other grasses should not be cut back too soon as old growth protects the new. Watch out for rabbits, hares and other animals as new shoots emerge.

Take care where you plant large grasses such as Pampas Grass. They need a lot of space, and a small front yard or garden isn't enough. Be aware that in parts of California and other areas, this invasive plant has started to colonize areas where native flora used to grow, and gardeners have been urged not to grow it or spread the seed.

Grasses are living proof that there's more to gardening than flowers that just sit there from first bloom to fall, and perhaps that's why they've become so popular. They are also easy to grow and difficult to kill, which has got to be good for any garden plant.

Got a New Project You're Proud of?

Post it on Your Projects!