Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
October, 2006
Regional Report

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Purple fountain grass (background) and dwarf fountain grass add texture, color, and graceful movement to the landscape.

Ornamental Grasses Add Graceful Texture

Landscaping is an art. Our canvas is the property, our paints the many plants that we spread across the scene. Beautiful landscapes include a variety of colors. They also feature various textures -- broad foliage contrasts with fine-textured foliage to add interest to the picture we are creating.

Ornamental grasses provide fine, linear textures to the scene. Additionally they add a graceful movement in the breeze. Many offer attractive seed heads, and many provide unique winter interest. They are becoming quite popular in our landscapes. If you haven't utilized these versatile plants much in your landscape, now is a great time to add a few.

Some of my favorites for our southern landscapes include: pennisetums, muhlys, and several types of miscanthus.

Pennisetums are often referred to as fountain grasses. Some excellent choices include the low-growing dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides). White bloom heads adorn the 2- to 3-foot mounds of foliage like fuzzy foxtails. The variety 'Moudry' has black-tipped bloom heads. The dwarf variety 'Little Bunny' stays under a foot in height.

The taller purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') really stands out as the 4-foot-tall upright, purple plants are topped with lighter purplish bloom heads that arch over gracefully pointing in the direction of the wind. For an annual treat, include ornamental millet. The new All America selection 'Purple Majesty' sports broad, strappy, dark purple foliage and bloom heads that point straight upward.

There are many nice species of muhlys, and two unique choices for the lower south are Gulf muhly and bamboo muhly. Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) forms rather inconspicuous 1-foot-tall plants that take center stage in late summer through fall with 3-foot-tall wispy bloom heads that appear dark purplish from the sunny side and really light up with a bright pinkish ruby color when backlight.

Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) stands tall with large fine-textured bloom heads that reach to 6 feet or more in height, turning the entire plant into a soft, wispy, light green, arching mound. In winter the stalks turn straw colored, and when frost settles on the heads, they light up in the early morning sun.

Miscanthus sinensis is perhaps the favorite of all ornamental grasses. Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus') forms 5-foot-tall mounds of long, narrow foliage. In late summer to fall, copper-colored bloom heads appear above the foliage to provide beauty and graceful movement with the slightest breeze. If left in winter, the foliage and seed heads are especially interesting on a frosty morning.

Many other forms of miscanthus offer quite a variety of ornamental interest. Zebra grass (M. sinensis 'Zebrinus') and porcupine grass (M. sinensis 'Strictus') have broad yellowish bands across the long, narrow foliage. Silver grass (M. sinensis 'Variegatus') is very bright, with stripes of white and green running lengthwise down the arching blades. For tighter spaces, M. sinensis 'Little Kitten' forms a mound of foliage a little over a foot high with seed heads rising above the foliage. M. sinensis 'Adagio' is a little larger, forming a 2- to 3-foot mound of foliage.

Other great grasses include inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima). Inland sea oats is one of the most shade-tolerant ornamental grasses. Its seed heads look like oats, bending the stalks over in a beautiful arching form. These stalks make nice additions to dried arrangements. Mexican feather grass forms tight clumps of wiry foliage that arches out in all directions to form an 18-inch mound. The bloom heads appear among the foliage, adding a wispy, feathery appearance. It's great as a specimen plant in a container or for lining a bed border.

These are just a few of the many wonderful ornamental grasses that can add perennial beauty to the landscape. Consider adding some to your yard. Remember that most like full- to half-day sun. Trim the clumps down to about 6 to 12 inches high (depending on the species) in late winter prior to the onset of new growth. When possible, locate them where you'll see the sun coming through the foliage and bloom heads for added pizzazz.

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