Home & Design: Landscape

Glorious Grasses

Ornamental Grasses Are Perfect for the East End Garden
By Anne Halpin - August 8, 2019

Are you in search of the perfect seashore plants – plants with an informal, beachy feel that are easy to grow, don’t need much in the way of care, and look great all summer long – even into fall? Plants that don’t need spraying or primping, that aren’t bothered by insects or diseases, plants that deer aren’t interested in adding to their ever-expanding menu? If this is your landscape goal, ornamental grasses can be just what you’re looking for.

Ornamental grasses check all of those boxes, and from a designer’s perspective they have a lot to contribute as well. Grasses bring their graceful forms – some stand upright, the leaves of others rise and then curve downward like a fountain. Grasses bring movement and sound to the landscape as they sway and rustle in a passing breeze. A big consideration for East End landscapes, especially those close to the water, is dealing with the wind, which carries with it sand, which is abrasive, and salt, which is drying. Grasses can tolerate our coastal conditions better than more delicate flowers and foliage, and they bend before the wind instead of snapping like woody branches. One caveat to bear in mind, though, is that some grasses, such as some varieties of Miscanthus, can spread to the point of becoming invasive, especially in fertile soils, so find out if the grass you want to plant is problematic before you plant it. If you really want to include it in your landscape, plant it in large pots and place them in the garden or on a deck or patio.

Grasses aren’t only clumps of leaves. They bloom, too. Grass flowers don’t have colorful petals like the plants in our flower gardens. Their flowers come in different forms. Some are flat and fanlike (those of Miscanthus, for example). Some resemble bottle brushes (Pennisetum). They may be feathery (as in Calamagrostis), or plumes as in pampas grass (the dwarf form is especially useful). Grass flowers come in shades of beige, tan, white and cream; some are pink and others golden or copper colored. And their leaves aren’t just green, either. The foliage can be bluish, silvery or golden, striped in green and creamy white or banded horizontally with gold. 

Ornamental grasses would be out of place in a formal landscape, but they work beautifully in informal beds, borders and containers — perfect for the laid back vibe of the beach. There’s a time of day, late in the afternoon, when breezes begin to blow as the air begins to cool. The grasses start to sway in the breeze, and when they bloom in late summer and early fall, their tan, buff, golden or coppery flowers catch the light in magical ways. In the morning they’ll capture drops of dew that sparkle in the early sun. Grasses aren’t spectacular like roses or hydrangeas but have their own undeniable beauty.   

When choosing grasses for your landscape or pots, you’ll need a location that gets a good amount of sun. Some grasses will grow in light shade (not woodland conditions). One lovely grass for a lightly shady spot is northern sea oats (Chasmanthium), which in late summer produces flat clusters of inch-wide flowers that turn from green to tan and can be cut and used to accent flower arrangements. If you are planting a bed of grasses, arrange them in ascending heights, as you would flowers in a garden. In the front row you might plant low-growing sedges and fescues, or dwarf varieties such as Pennisetum ‘Little Bunny.’ In the middle ground plant mid-size grasses such as standard size foxtail grasses (Pennisetum), blue-green wild rye (Elymus) and oat grass. Taller miscanthus and switchgrass (Panicum) can provide height in the back.

Easy to grow and care for, grasses aren’t bothered by pests or diseases. They don’t need to be sprayed or deadheaded or pruned. All you need to do is give them some water during spells of dry weather, or more regularly if they are planted in pots. Once a year, in late fall or early spring before they begin to send out new leaves, cut back the old leaves near the base of the plant.

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