Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2011
Regional Report

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Masses of grasses fill an eye-level raised bed.

Masses of Grasses

The hearts of us plant aficionados (and I'm assuming that you are one) beat a little faster when encountering a plant we don't yet own at our favorite nursery. We pounce, hauling our precious find home without thinking about where it will actually fit (physically or design-wise) in the landscape or garden. The more the merrier is our motto. (I'm not lecturing against this lack of willpower: there are worse addictions than plantaholism!)

Although we may try growing one of everything in our yard on our way to creating a personal botanical garden, most of us are aware that we are ignoring the landscape design tenet that recommends planting one species in odd numbers, typically groups of three or five. Aesthetically, this creates a balanced composition of weight, texture, and form that is more pleasing than a hodgepodge of varied singletons dotted across the yard.

Another option is to mass a species in a group of seven or more. In practice, this is problematic in today's smaller yards, but if your landscape offers sufficient space, you might consider it for making a visual statement. I can't think of a desert plant type that commands more attention when planted in masses than grasses. Their power to draw the eye when repeated is striking, more so when their tall flower heads emerge in summer, transforming as temperatures drop to autumn's wheat-colored seed heads. (Some grasses even offer unusual colors, such as the pink gossamer heads of Muhlenbergia capillaris 'Regal Mist'.) Grasses wave in the breeze, adding sound and movement to the garden.

Ornamental grasses with stunning flower heads for southwestern landscapes thrive in a range of elevations and growing conditions. Here are some to experiment with:

Low and mid desert elevations
'El Toro' muhly grass (Muhlenbergia emersleyi 'El Toro')
Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris 'Regal Mist')
'White Cloud' muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris 'White Cloud')
Mexican thread grass (Stipa tenuissima )

Mid to high desert elevations
'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster')
Silver spike grass (Achnatherum calamagrostis)

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