Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
October, 2009
Regional Report

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Backlit by an October sun, a sweep of muhly grass is as breathtaking as any border of summer flowers.

Add Pizzazz with Grasses

Ornamental grasses are beautiful throughout the year. Fall, however, is when they really catch the eye. On a recent drive, I braked at the sight of knee-high muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) in a mixed bed at the edge of a suburban yard. With its blooms backlit by the afternoon sun, the plant's delicate, wispy inflorescences shimmered in an iridescent pink haze that made summer's flowers pale by comparison.

In my own backyard, arching blades of 7-foot-tall zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') bring zest to the garden with horizontal bands of green and yellow foliage. Newly formed silver-white tassels will last throughout the cool season, dancing in winter breezes and glinting under coats of frost.

Grasses bring unique qualities to the garden. They add texture, of course, with their thin blades providing contrast to leafy shapes. They also create interesting effects with sunlight, and their flexible stems contribute movement and sound to otherwise staid landscapes, offering life and animation throughout the seasons.

Most important, grasses are born mixers, weaving themselves with other plants into graceful compositions. They look terrific beside bodies of water, between stones, or among flowering plants in borders or containers.

Tall, sculptural grasses can be used to create walls, screens, and windbreaks. Medium-sized grasses make attractive accents or focal points when planted in sweeps and also work well in mixed borders. Short grasses, on the other hand, make excellent ground covers and are perfect for edging walkways, where their weeping effect will soften hard lines.

Most ornamental grasses like full sun and well-drained soil, but a few will grow in shade and wet soil. In general, they grow quickly, tolerate heat and drought, and have no serious pests. Fertilizer is usually unnecessary and may even cause weak and excess growth.

Maintenance is simple. Annual grasses can removed at the end of the growing season or left in place to dry, providing winter interest and habitat for wildlife. Perennial grasses should be cut back at the end of winter (late February for much of the Middle South), before the plant produces new growth. Grasses can be dug and divided at this time also.

Keep size in mind when choosing an ornamental grass for the garden, as some grow quite large. Also, be aware that some types spread aggressively by seed or underground runners. What may be perfectly acceptable in one climate region might be invasive in another. Take care to select the best types for your garden, as well as the local habitat.

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