Ornamental grasses get no respect, according to some garden experts.
“People are captivated by plants with big, showy, colorful flowers like peonies and iris,” said Mary Hockenberry Meyer, professor and extension horticulturist at the University of Minnesota and all-around grasses expert. “So they tend to overlook grasses.”
Lots of gardeners — you know who you are — would rather fill their beds with vibrant phlox than a finely textured clump of prairie dropseed. Seems like all we care about is strategic continuous color from June to September.
Maybe this article will change your mind.
There’s lots to love about ornamental grasses. For starters, varieties native to Minnesota are good for the environment. Plantings provide habitat and food for birds, bees and wildlife and restore some of the prairies we’ve lost. Once plants are established, they don’t need a lot of water. Grasses have thick roots that minimize soil erosion. And they’re naturally critter-resistant. White-tailed deer treat them like broccoli on the plate of a 5-year-old.
Aesthetically, it’s easy to get hooked on ornamental grass varieties for their tassel-like plumes, fine texture and movement on breezy days. Some sprout spikes of tiny flowers.
Grasses add height among swaths of perennial flowers and display nuanced color changes with the seasons.
For time-strapped gardeners, they’re also super easy to maintain — the biggest chore is cutting down old growth in the spring.
And today, there are more varieties and new introductions to pick from than ever before, both online and at brick-and-mortar nurseries.
“Grasses have subtle beauty,” said Meyer. “It’s their overall form — especially when used in mass plantings — that usually gets attention.”
That alluring appearance ranges from mini-mounds of fescue to 12-foot-tall giant miscanthus with feathery flowers that sway in the wind.
“Some grasses, like ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue, look like buns, while molinias are tall, upright and open and airy,” said Arla Carmichiel, head gardener at Three Rivers Park District’s Noerenberg Gardens in Orono. A natural, free-flowing style is gaining momentum in city and suburban gardens, and grasses fit with that design, she added.
Meyer’s all-time favorite is the native little bluestem for its importance in restoring prairie land and as a habitat and food for birds and insects. “I also love its pumpkin or reddish fall color,” she said.
In fact, Meyer and the University of Minnesota introduced Blue Heaven, a tall upright form of little bluestem, which became available in garden centers in 2011. The name refers to the summer foliage color, which changes to dark burgundy and then to red in fall. It grows to just over 4 feet tall in dry, sunny sites.
Carmichiel is enamored of ‘Tara’ native prairie dropseed for its neat appearance, easy-to-grow quality and yellow hue in fall; she’s planted 12 different groupings at Noerenberg Gardens.
Fear of spreading
Some gardeners harbor misconceptions about growing grasses, fearing a messy appearance and uncontrollable spread. “Many people think grasses will take over your garden, which is untrue,” said Meyer.
With education and awareness, more gardeners are learning about the benefits of ornamental grasses and are appreciating their beauty, said Meyer and Carmichiel.
Annual purple fountain grass is a popular “thriller” in containers, and rows of ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grasses accent some shopping-center parking lots.
“‘Karl Foerster’” is overplanted,” said Meyer. But that’s because it’s a strong performer and boasts a long season of interest, she admitted. “It greens up early in the spring, has flowers in June and a stiff upright wheat-like appearance.”
In the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s ornamental grass display gardens, adults and kids like to disappear inside a giant miscanthus. “I love to see people enjoy the grasses and experience them,” said Meyer.
Fall at Noerenberg Gardens is when the grasses really put on a show, said Carmichiel. Visitors always ask to see the mums, often overlooking the grasses’ fine-textured foliage and hues ranging from bronze to burgundy.
“With the grasses blowing and changing colors,” said Carmichiel, “you truly feel like you are in this magical place.”