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A garden of grasses: how to use ornamentals in the landscape for striking results.

Twelve years ago, Mary and Lew Reid moved north to the rolling grasslands of California's west Sonoma County, where they built their dream home atop an open ridge. Around it, Mary designed a 2-acre garden of ornamental grasses to connect her land to the surrounding meadows. "Ornamental grasses offered the perfect transitional element," she explains. Their restrained height "also makes it easy to maintain a view.

Developing the garden became a family affair. Lew's father engineered the layout while Lew started perennials from seed mid propagated the grasses by division.

A grass walk at the property's border features spiraling masses of single species (Miscanthus 'Gracillimus', for instance) weaving gracefully around others such as Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln'. "I designed it like a painting, using sweeps of color and texture," Mary says. For seasonal interest, she adds flowers of a single color--pink Eupatorium purpureum 'Gateway' for summer, and yellow Helianthus angustifolius along the grass walk for fall.

In the main garden, wide paths covered with gravel in a warm brownish gray weave around large planting beds of various sizes, each designed around a color theme. "I look for perennials that contrast with and complement the colors and textures of the grasses," Mary says. The burgundy of Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', for instance, enriches a hot orange scheme of kangaroo paw, lion's tail, orange cestrum, and orange gloriosa daisy. The blue-gray foliage of blue oat grass pairs well with lavender and salvia.

One of the most beautiful features of ornamental grasses is their winter form--an important criteria. The Reids enjoy the grasses' dormant-season beauty until just before spring, when Mary gets out the power trimmers (see maintenance tips below). Grasses are very forgiving and easy to maintain, she says. "There's only six weeks of downtime before they start popping out again. They truly provide four seasons of interest."

Maintenance tips

To get rid of dead growth, most grasses need to be cut down every year. The exceptions are evergreen grasses, such as sedge (Carex), blue oat grass, and some species of feather grass (Stipa), which only need renewing every 2 to 3 years (comb out the dead blades with your fingers and cut off old flowers).

1. In late winter or spring (February in the Reids' garden), look for new growth at the base of the old grass blades.

2. After you see new growth, use power trimmers or hedge shears to cut clumps down to 1 1/2 to 3 inches tall for smaller grasses, 3 to 6 inches for taller grasses (depending on the mature height). For instance, cut low-growing tufted hair grass down to 1 1/2 inches, Eulalia grass (Miscanthus) to 6 inches.

3. Spread a layer of compost around the base of each plant (Mary uses well-composted are turkey manure).

Grass uses

Eulalia grass (Miscanthus 'Gracillimus', M. sinensis 'Morning Light'); Sunset climate zones 2-24.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutitlora 'Karl Foerster'); zones 2B-24.

Fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose'); zones 3-10, 14-24.

Giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea); zones 4-9, 14-24.

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Haense Herms'); zones 1-11, 14-23.


Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens); zones 1-24.

Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima); 2B-24.

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'; zones 8-24.

Sedge (Carex); zones vary.


Festuca idahoensis 'Siskiyou Blue'; zones 1-10, 14 24.

Tufted hair grass (De schampsia cespitosa); zones 2-24.
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Title Annotation:Garden
Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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