“What better plant to celebrate sun and wind than grasses?” Lauren Springer
The Attraction of Grasses
For year-round interest, it’s hard to beat ornamental grasses. Except for a brief period in early spring when they need to be cut back, they provide structure and interest all year long.
They provide the perfect canvas for the elements. Their fine-textured blades and seedheads are a landing place for dew, ice and snow. Add some sunlight to these liquid or glassy surfaces and they’re a photographer’s dream. In winter, the angle of the low evening sun gives dramatic backlighting. Even moonlight is strong enough to turn them into glittering crystals.
They’re flexible enough to move with the slightest wind, adding audible sound and visible movement to the landscape, and strong enough to take on a load of snow and stand up again when it disappears.
Growing Ornamental Grasses
“Self-reliant” is a good word for them. Few pests or diseases bother them and their deep roots mean they can handle dry as well as periodically wet soils. They do better in poor rather than rich soils, which can cause them to flop. And though they tend to out-compete perennials, they don’t usually compete with each other, making them long-lived and stable in the garden.
Grasses also provide food and essential shelter for birds and other wildlife, especially in cold months. So unless they’re hanging over areas where shoveling is required, leave them be until late winter or early spring.
Grasses To Consider
Below are some native ornamental grasses that will add structure and interest all year. They perform best in poor, dry soils that are not heavily mulched. Specific cultivars of these species offer more variety in terms of height, color and other characteristics.
Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is native to tallgrass prairies. It grows up to 6 feet high, has rich coppery and orange colors and seedheads that resemble a turkey’s foot.
Blue grama, Bouteloua gracilis, is native to dry prairies. It has unique, eyelash-like seedheads and stands about 18 inches high.
Indiangrass, Sorghastrum nutans, has feathery seedheads up to 6 feet high.
Little bluestem, Schizachrium scoparium, grows to 2 feet high and tends to remain upright even in fairly narrow strips surrounded by hardscaping.
Prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis, has coppery fall colors, delicate seedheads and grows to about 2 feet.
Sand lovegrass, Eragrostis tricoides, is native to sandy soils and can flop in moist or shady spots. It has airy masses of fine-textured seedheads 4 feet high.
Sideoats grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, has seedheads that line up on just one side of the 2-3 foot stems.
Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, grows to about 3 feet high and tends to retain its vertical shape throughout the year. Cultivars include Northwind, which grows to a very upright 5 feet, and a few like Shenandoah that have bright fall colors.
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum is a nonprofit that works toward sustainable home and community landscapes through initiatives in education, public gardens and the environment. Plant and landscape resources at http://plantnebraska.org.