Landscape With Ornamental Grass

September 16, 2016 | Doug Oster comments

Looking to add some variety to your garden? Don’t overlook ornamental grasses.

“I think they are nice in the garden for structure, and they are really easy to grow,” says Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy horticulturalist Angela Yuele. They have plenty to add to any garden because of their variety — sizes, shapes, colors, texture, verticality and more, she says.

At the recently reopened Frick Environmental Center, the final plantings of ornamental grasses are under way. Yuele’s team is putting drifts of beautiful, airy ‘Purple Love Grass’ to good use. “We’re actually using them as groundcovers,” she says.

But don’t forget to water.

“When you’re planting this late in the season, watering is the key to getting any plant to establish,” Yuele says.

Angela Yuele, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy horticulturalist planted Purple Love Grass at Frick Environmental Center. Yuele has planted many different types of grasses in the parks. PHOTO BY DOUG OSTER

Angela Yuele, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy horticulturalist planted Purple Love Grass at Frick Environmental Center. Yuele has planted many different types of grasses in the parks. PHOTO BY DOUG OSTER

The ‘Purple Love Grass’ is a native that grows to about a height of 18 inches, has a purplish seed tuft and makes a dense mat to suppress weeds. She’s planted more than 2,000 of them. “If you have large areas, masses look much better; they fit the scale of the landscape a little better,” Yuele says.

The grasses she’s using are clumping varieties, unlike the spreading types. Keep in mind, some do reproduce by seed — gardeners should consider that fact when adding them.

Among the other types of ornamental grass Yuele’s team counts on — liatris, ‘Sideoats Grama,’ coreopsis blooms, and switch grass — all of which are are planted in average native Pennsylvania soil — nothing special for these tough species.

Switch grass has an airy seed tuft reaching just around 4 feet tall. Gardeners can get a lot of different cultivars, some with reddish tips and some with a bluish look. If home gardeners are looking for something a little more colorful, ‘Shenandoah’ switch grass is a quick grower that emerges green with red tips that darken through the season, eventually reaching burgundy in fall.

Then, there’s mountain mint.

“I love that plant because the deer don’t eat it,” Yuele says. It gets about 2 feet tall and is a long bloomer, which makes it attractive to many pollinators and gardeners alike.

She recommends wearing a dust mask when working with porcupine or zebra grasses among others that have little hairs on the stems. In doing so you can avoid possible sinus irritation.

Ornamental grasses mostly need should be cut back. There is much debate on if its best to do this job in the fall or in the spring. If left alone, the seeds will be enjoyed by animals and birds.

“My personal preference is what do I have time for,” Yuele says with a laugh. “Am I going to have time in the spring or the fall?”

Denise Schreiber, horticulturalist and greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks, as well as the author of “Eat Your Roses” (St. Lynn’s Press, $17.95), waits until spring to cut down her grasses, because she loves the winter interest the plants provide.

Miscanthus variegatus grows in a bed in South Park. Denise Schreiber is horticulturalist and greenhouse manager for the Allegheny County Parks. She uses many different types of grasses in the parks. PHOTO BY DOUG OSTER

Miscanthus variegatus grows in a bed in South Park. Denise Schreiber is horticulturalist and greenhouse manager for the Allegheny County Parks. She uses many different types of grasses in the parks. PHOTO BY DOUG OSTER

Schriber manages a large, circular, bed in South Park on East Park Drive full of amazing giant varieties. Standing at 14 feet, the largest in the bed is Miscanthus floridulus. Beside it is an attractive, yet common, zebra grass (Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’). A part of the beauty of the 8 foot plants is their tassels. Right next to that is another nice option Miscanthus ‘Variegatus,’ with white and green variegated foliage. The sun goes down and the bed is backlit causing each blade to shine.

After a few years, the inside of these grass clumps will die and they form more of a ring. You’ll want to separate and split those clumps come spring.

“You might need a backhoe,” Schreiber says with a laugh. She recommends saturating the soil before getting a sharp shovel to dig the plant out. “In some cases, you can actually use a pruning saw,” she says.

This South Park bed demonstrates how tall grasses can be a very effective screening plant.

One of her favorite varieties is grown as an annual, and is a stunner that comes in a bit smaller around 3 feet tall.

“Pink muhly grass — it’s a beautiful plant,” she says. “I just love it to death, (but) it’s not hardy here. It’s very delicate, with an intense pink color.”

Pink muhly grass is an annual recommended by Denise Schreiber, horticulturlist and greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks PHOTO BY DOUG OSTER

Pink muhly grass is an annual recommended by Denise Schreiber, horticulturlist and greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks PHOTO BY DOUG OSTER

Grasses make a great backdrop for smaller flowers. Schreiber encourages gardeners not to forget smaller varieties which can mix things up in containers. She recommends the annual ‘Fireworks’. It has foliage that is variegated with white, green, burgundy and pink running the length of the grass blade. In the summer, the plant gets purple tassels.