Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental Grasses

Winter is here, and most people in Central Texas begin to hibernate with their dormant plants waiting for the sunshine days of spring. This is the perfect time for a little education about ornamental grasses, and how to use them in the landscape. Understanding the requirements for growth habits, plant zones, proper planting and maintenance of grasses will enhance their beauty in your landscape, and minimize frustration. This article was designed to perk the interest of the readers, and give a brief look into the ease of incorporating ornamental grasses into your landscape.

The splendor of ornamental grasses is something to admire. The demand for them is growing with the desire for native plants, and the assessment of water usage in the landscape. The growth habit of grasses is determined by the variety, and deserves a little research before planting. Contacting the local McLennan County Master Gardener’s hotline on Tuesday and Thursday of each week at the extension office or a knowledgeable nursery employee can help a homeowner utilize the best ornamental grasses for their particular need or desire.

The opportunities that grasses add to the local scenery and their many uses are increasing the demand for more adaptable varieties for Central Texas. New cultivars are available each year brining more colors and textures to enhance the appearance of the land. Check with a dependable source to find the perfect grass that fits your vision.

Cool season grasses prefer our cooler temperatures in the fall and spring, but tend to go dormant if not watered during droughts in the winter months. They provide colors that give a visually cooling aspect to our landscape during the blatantly hot and often humid climate during summer months in our area. The most common cool season grasses used that fit this realm in our area are the fescues, and the Tufted Hair Grasses (Deschampsia). Cooler autumn temperatures will revisit the beauty of their outstanding colors introduced in the spring.

The warmer season grasses are also widely used in our scorching hot summers giving the homeowner lush and strikingly beautiful features in vibrant colors, shapes and textures. The soil temperature determines the stimulation of new growth in the warm season grasses, and requires patience after an unusually colder winter. New growth should peak through the ground around May. Removal of the previous season’s growth with hand-held pruners is recommended and should reach completion before new growth begins. This allows the sun to warm the crown or center of each clump in the spring to encourage new growth. Some warm season grasses commonly used in local landscapes include Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium), Japanese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sp.), Hardy Pampas Grass (Erianthus), Perennial Fountain Grass (Pennisetum), and the less hardy Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’). There are too many varieties to name, but part of the experience is observing new plants in your local nursery and getting advice from experts in the field.

Most ornamental grasses grow in a clump form meaning they spread from the middle and grow in girth. The second growing form known as rhizomes we see in our turfgrasses. Bermuda is a rhizome grass while Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea) is an ornamental that grows in the same fashion, and is ideal for a large area where other plants will not flourish. Understanding how big the grass will grow in width and height is pertinent when selecting a variety. Knowing how the grass grows can help eliminate frustration of your choice becoming a nuisance and not aesthetically pleasing in the landscape. Use reliable sources to choose the best selection of ornamental grasses including master gardeners, Texas Certified Nurseryman Professionals, and websites that offer proven facts.

Dividing existing clumps of grasses is required every three to five years for warm season, and every two years for the grasses that prefer cooler conditions. Draw a circle around the perimeter of the grass with a shovel or sharp shooter about six inches from the clump. This helps get enough roots in width. Depth is determined by the root structure of the grass, and often requires a little elbow grease in our soil. Grasses with fibrous roots are shallower while tap roots require an individual to dig deeper into the soil for an adequate root ball. Most will require digging at least 6 to12 inches below the soil surface to get a sufficient root ball. Try to get as much of the root ball as possible when removing the existing grass to facilitate establishment in its new place. Divide the clump in half or fourths depending on the desired amount of plants and your energy level.

Survival of ornamental grasses is as simple as any other perennial with proper soil conditions and adequate water. Good organic matter is the best soil amendment to provide ample oxygen and nutrients for plants. Since most grasses require minimal water after establishing, they are the perfect solution for a native design. Central Texans can easily plant ornamental grasses in the fall or spring, and have a good standing before the harsher temperatures develop.

Colors on the grass blades give interest in the spring and summer, but do not forget about the display of beauty into the fall months and other plant attributes ornamental grasses offer. The Muhlenbergia’s , for instance, provide excellent fall color with the crimson seed heads while the plumes of the Pennisetum’s move the wind providing sound and calmness to the space. Mixing your grasses with annuals and other perennials will add to the beauty and longevity of the color, texture and movement that provides visual interest to your landscape. Planting grasses in masses of five or more of the same plant will create a stunning visual that provides excellent curb-appeal or personal enjoyment in the privacy of the backyard.

Removing the dormant seed heads, plumes and blades in the winter is really a personal preference. Seeds provide nourishment for birds and the dried blades also give our feathered friends camouflage and nesting material. Native grasses will also attract favorable butterflies and other insects that are beneficial for your garden and landscape.  If the homeowner prefers a well-kept manicured look for their landscape than trim ornamental grasses when the blades are brown from dormancy. This occurs usually around the middle to end of November. If your household has differing opinions like ours, then compromise and provide a neat appearance in the front yard and provide habitat for wildlife in the private area of the landscape usually located in the backyard.

Ornamental grasses require minimal fertilizing needing only one application of nitrogen when growth resumes in the spring. Providing water during the first season’s growth is necessary for a healthy root structure that will sustain the life of the grass. Watering during droughts is all that is necessary for most established grasses planted in the ground. Grasses used in containers might need additional watering especially when the seeds form. A few that do well in containers include sweet flag, fescues, and many of the smaller Pennisetum cultivars including ‘Hamelin’ and purple fountain grass. Add these to annuals, perennials and small shrubs for texture and colors for a natural beauty and versatility to your personal scenery.

Zoning is also a vital part in the planning of ornamental grasses. Many of our grasses are native, but check the zone for the variety chosen. Waco is considered zone 8a and the infamous purple fountain grass is labeled zone 9 meaning our winters might reach lower temperatures and possibly kill them. Available sunlight can also determine which ornamental grass is best. Most of the grasses prefer six or more hours of sunlight, but the river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), sedges, and feather reed grass (Calamagrotis x acutiflora) will tolerate shady conditions.

Grasses are part of Central Texas and our natural environment. Ornamental grasses are an easy and relatively inexpensive way to go green. Grasses are an easy-growing option for the homeowner that prefers the natural state of their landscape. If saving on the water bills or increasing beneficial wildlife is a priority this spring do not hesitate to add ornamental grasses from an array of varieties. Planting ornamental grasses helps take advantage of their beautiful and in some cases striking features that enhances the aesthetics of the landscape. Used on a smaller scale these grasses will add magnificence to tropical, earth-friendly, or typical suburban landscape in our area. They are versatile and will blend with any new or established landscape. This spring find an ornamental grass to plant in your yard that provides visual interest and flaunts the superlative scenery of Central Texas.

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