by Dave Waltzer
There are many things to consider when designing a garden. Color is what immediately comes to mind, scale and plant size. However, it is texture that creates the overall feeling . Much of the emotive impact of a garden is gained through contrasts in texture. Some plants are spiky, some are shaggy, and some are very soft. Grasses are an effective way of softening your garden and provide a needed contrast in texture. They are also colorful and come in many sizes, so they serve a multiple purpose. They can be used as a ground cover, or an accent, or as a backdrop,
The world of grasses is vast… naming just the different genus would take up most of this article. To keep it simple, I have chosen a few really notable and readily available varieties, and that I have developed a relationship with over the years. If you think that the idea of developing a relationship with a grass sounds funny, then you probably have not experienced their beauty, or the heartbreak of losing one.
As a general rule grasses require well drained soil and I am a firm believer in planting the smaller varieties in groupings of a minimum of 5 feet, otherwise they will get lost in a mature garden.
I have listed the grasses below according to size, starting with the shortest.
Fescue is the most common of the grasses and we all see it every day. It is the grass that grows in meadows and most lawns. Red fescue is the thick, coarse- bladed variety used in parks and high use areas where a hardy grass is necessary.
If you really desire a patch of green lawn in your yard and you want the instant gratification of sod, there are new “designer” blends of fescues that require almost no mowing and significantly less water. Greenfieds Turf is a local sod farm that provides a sod especially designed for shade (of which there is an abundance of in this area) ,which grows to between 6 and 12 inches long. While not really conducive to being a play area in the traditional sense, it makes for a nice green patch.
My favorite fescue (also one of my favorite plants), is Festuca Glauca, One cultivar in particular ,‘Elijah Blue’, has a blue-silver tint and maintains its color year round. Requiring little water and almost no maintenance (also chokes out weeds), this as close to the perfect groundcover as they get. It’s one drawback is that it seems to have a lifespan of about 5 years.
Acorus and Hakonechloa
I have included these two grasses because they both thrive in deep shade and maintain their bright colors year round.
If you reside in the forest and are frustrated by your inability to use flowering plants for color, these grasses provide a nice alternative and come in various shades of green, silver and yellow.
Acorus is a rather small grass that spreads slowly, so in order to make an impact it is necessary to plant several in a grouping. It requires more water than most other grasses, but it is worth it.
Hakonechloa, “Japanese Forest Grass”, is a beautiful clumping grass that maintains its color best in part shade but can also take full sun.
One of the simplest, but most beautiful gardens that I have seen consists of several large boulders nestled in amongst groupings of Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls’. Carex is a genus of grasses called sedges which also includes Acorus (mentioned above) and requires moist soil or part shade. I have had success planting carex at the bottom of a slope where they benefit from hill runoff without having to give them supplemental water.
C. comans ‘Frosted Curls’ has a green-silver color that is unique in the plant world. If planted in a grouping, it looks like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss illustration and one almost expects to find a Sneech or a Lorax residing in their midst.
This genus consists of about 80 species, but the most popular would be P. setaceum, commonly known as Fountain Grass. There are numerous cultivars within this species, but by far the most popular is ‘Rubrum’, the tall red grass with the bronze flowers. There is also the standard green leafed variety, which has a graceful wispy golden appearance, but has an annoying tendency to spread throughout your garden on its own accord. This species, like certain species of Euphorbia and feverfew, is a gift that keeps on giving until it ends up not being a gift, but a curse. If you plant it, plan on spending the rest of your days digging up its little babies from every nook and cranny of your garden..
Pennisetum is what I would consider a midsize grass, neither a foreground nor a background, and can be placed at various spots throughout your garden; P. ‘Rubrum’ (very popular) makes for a nice splash of red. My personal favorite is P. orientale, which at first appears to be rather ordinary, but when it flowers its beauty shines through. For maximum effect, I like to plant orientale in groupings of 3. When the first morning light catches the flowers, they seem like pink clouds hanging over the garden .
This striking grass can reach 8’ in height, and should be used as a backdrop since it will certainly block the view of anything behind, short of a full sized tree. M. sinensis is one of the most popular species. Its leaves are often striped and vary in color. Miscanthus has an effect which is so imposing that planting it in a grouping seems just a little too much. Miscanthus Zebrinus (Zebra Grass) has horizontal stripes of lemon and green on the leaves and silvery seed heads in the winter. “Morning Light”
This is a remarkable group of grasses that have graceful sweeping branches and some varieties have striped stems. There are two species that I have used with great success, Rhodocoma capensis and Elegia capensis. These grasses need to be given a wide berth as they can get to be 8 feet wide and as tall. Do not make the mistake of planting them in the front of your garden! Beautiful specimens of Restios can be viewed at our local plant lovers Mecca, the UCSC Arboretum.
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