Posted by: gardenshf | February 2, 2015

Using Ornamental Grasses

During these times of exceptionally low precipitation, as a gardener, one must strongly consider a plant palette that is conducive to such an environment. When we consider what a drought tolerant plant might look like, we often times are drawn to plants such as cacti and succulents. Though these sorts of species are clearly drought tolerant, they will commonly front load a gardener’s work schedule. By this, we mean that a gardener will need, in many cases, to thoroughly amend the soil in a planting bed to provide adequate drainage, especially when planting into our native adobe clay soils. (For the record, I prefer pumice as an amendment in this case.) But is there something else we could use that provides beauty without so much work?

Grasses are extremely drought tolerant, low maintenance, and truly provide garden interest through all four seasons. Here at The Gardens at Heather Farm, we recently planted a large ornamental grass display. It’s small at the moment because we grew out approximately 1,000 plugs of 5 different species and planted them out from small plugs. However, these grasses should achieve a nice, large, respectable size by fall, when the plants are at their high point for the season.

In looking around, one will commonly run into deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and also purple pennisetum (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’). These are fine species, however, they are so commonplace in gardens around this area, that perhaps it is wise to explore some other more unusual species. To that end, let’s have a look at pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and giant sacaton (Sporobolis wrightii).

Pink muhly grass

Pink muhly grass

Pink muhly grass is certainly one of the most stunning grasses available at the moment. I see this one available at many nurseries but not planted out as much as it ought to be. During the fall, its iridescent pink inflorescences will have all of your gardening friends begging you for the name of that plant! It tolerates nearly any soil condition and is incredibly drought tolerant once established. At maturity, one can expect pink muhly to achieve a size of 3’x3’. This means it can fit into a number of spaces in the garden without taking up more real estate than you’d like to contribute. I have personally grown this plant from the Midwest all the way out to the West Coast, and in every situation it has thrived. The only care it will need is a quick cut back in the winter time (which can be quickly and easily accomplished with one swift cut with you hedge shears). I recommend purchasing these in a 4” size and planting them during the winter (i.e. right now) for best results. Gallon sizes are usually a waste on ornamental grasses if you have even the smallest modicum of patience. We will have a few hundred of these in the garden on display for your viewing pleasure in the fall. They will thoroughly complement our standard mum beds as well.

Giant sacton

Giant sacaton

Giant sacaton (Sporobolis wrightii) is an excellent candidate when one needs some taller plants in a bed to create a multileveled viewing experience. I’ve seen pampas grass used for this effect in many situations, however its invasive nature tends to scare me away from planting it. That’s where giant sacaton comes in; it doesn’t suffer from the same tendecies. One can expect this grass to reach heights of 5-7’. That’s a good sized plant, indeed! The puffy inflorescences will remain attractive all through the winter months. The look is nothing short of stately. Many gardeners have achieved dramatic looks in beds with a bit of solar powered up lighting on these specimens as well. Paired with some shorter grasses like pink muhly, you can achieve a gorgeous and unique install that requires an absolute mimumum of care. All that’s required is one day per season of cutting back these grasses. They divide easily, as well, which can be done immediately after cutting them back.

We hope to have both of these species available at our upcoming plant sale later this spring.  Stop by The Gardens and pick our brains about these and other ornamental grasses we’ll be featuring!

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