By Margie Densford
Ornamental grasses can be invaluable in the landscape, intimate flower beds or even containers. They can fit the bill for all three of the nicknames given to plants that construct a perfect pot: thrillers, fillers and spillers. Grasses range from varied solid colors to variegated and striped and from mega-sized to miniature. Most are hardy in our area and will come back year after year with little maintenance.
I know you’ve seen massive 5’-7’ tall Pampas grasses with striking white or pink plumes gracing the landscape around large commercial complexes or the entrance to an exclusive sub-division. Put in the back of a border bed or in the center of an island bed, this drought tolerant grass can fit quite well in the yard of almost any home. Zebra grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus,’ steals the show with its 5’ tall variegated, gold striped foliage and even taller, beautiful, fall plumes. It’s all about the scale of the plantings next to tall grass. Add plants that taper or tier down next to these show stoppers, and they won’t stick out like a sore thumb.
The trick I found to keeping tall grasses from flopping over is to tie them up with several rounds of twine about 12” from the ground in late winter. Then you can take a hedge trimmer and cut them back right above the cord. The tightly wound stalk will become like a vase, and the new grass will grow up right inside it.
If you have a blank spot in your flower bed, you can choose from among several, medium sized grasses. A chartreuse, 3’-4’, highly revered grass is Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose.’ Its fuzzy, pink blooms come earlier than its counterparts and rebloom throughout summer and fall. Muhlenbergia capillaries ‘Pink Haze,’ commonly called Muhly Grass, is a clumping perennial. Its claim to fame is the airy, pink blooms that arise from its arching blades in the fall. Not only is this grass drought resistant but prefer dry locations. A black flowering fountain grass that flourishes in dry places is Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry.’ It will grow from a small division to a full 2 by 3 ft. clump in one season. All of these perennial grasses grow in clumps and prefer well-drained soil in full sun. The extra bonus comes when you easily divide and transplant or share these gems every few years.
Well, we all know the best things come in small packages and grasses are no exception. Some of the most diverse grasses are only a few inches tall. Gray-green Blue Fescue grass, Festuca glauca “Elijah Blue,’ stands about 1’ x 1’ tall. It can tuck into almost any garden spot and provide outstanding contrast to its neighbors,
You don’t have to be an avid gardener to have heard of one of the coxcomb-shaped Monkey grasses. The most commonly used Liriope spicata is solid green, 10”-12” tall, with 3/4”-1/4” leaf blades. This version or its thinner bladed sister spread quite rapidly from underground rhizomes. A perfect pick for a shady hillside where nothing else will grow. I prefer the gold and green variegated Liriope muscari ‘John Burch’ that has a clumping habit and the almost white ‘Silver Dragon’ that runs daintily and springs up a distance from the mother plant. Silver Dragon plays well and its light color is a standout in my garden with fern and other companion plants. All of these grasses are evergreen, drought tolerant, and will grow in sun or shade. They also burst into a miniature, grape hyacinth-type bloom (Muscari) in summer ranging in color from lavender to white.
Mondo grasses, Ophiopogon japonicus, are almost identical to Liriope, as they are both members of the lily family. However, Mondo comes in an even smaller package. It’s available in dwarf form, ‘Gyoku Ryu,’ that creates a tight green carpet or clumping forms like ‘Seoulitary Man’ that’s 12” tall and very thinly leafed, One variegated selection, ‘Silver Mist,’ only reaches 3.5” in height. The Black Mondo, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Arabicus,’ is my favorite. This unusual, petite, 6” tall plant is a slow grower that’s foliage is truly black. I think it looks dramatic under our lime-green, weeping Japanese Maple. Light pink to white, bell shaped flowers will appear in summer, followed by small black berries. These grasses are often used as groundcovers, borders and fillers between garden pavers or stepping stones.
It is recommended that the old blades of these medium and shorter grasses be cut back in late winter or early spring with scissors, shears, or a string trimmer.
Most of the darker burgundy hues like Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ are not hardy to our zone. They are worth it to use as an annual for just one season, because their contrasting color makes such a striking accent plant. If you find them at nurseries in small containers early in the season, they can even be inexpensive. I have dug ‘Ruburm’ up in the fall and tried to overwinter it, but have yet to be successful.
An area of your garden can be designated for a collection of grasses and be as full of color and seasonal interest as any bed comprised of typical flowering shrub and plants. Pick one up and give it a try the next time you’re shopping at your local nursery or garden center.
May garden tips:
1. Plant all warm-season vegetables: tomato, pepper, squash, corn, cucumbers, etc.
2. Prune shrubs after spring blooming.
3. Fertilize beds, shrubs and trees with a 10-10-10 fertilizer.
4. Finish planting all bedding plants, trees, and shrubs.
5. Repot and fertilizer container plants taken outdoors.
May Garden opportunities:
• May 1-Oct. 30 (Wednesdays 2 p.m.-6 p.m.) Farmers’ Market at Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG).
• May 3-31 (Fridays in May 10:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m.) Picnic Day with Chick FilA at MBG – Grab your lunch and enjoy it to one of the outdoor picnic areas.
• May 3-June 28 (Fridays in May and June 11 a.m.-1 p.m.) Food Truck Fridays at Dixon Gallery & Gardens (DGG) – Visit a different truck every Friday and stroll through the garden.
• May 4-Oct 26 (Saturdays 8:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.) Millington Farmers’ Market.
• May 7 (Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) National Public Garden Day at MBG – Tram tours, activities throughout the day.
• May 11 (Sat. 11:00 p.m.) Millington City Beautiful’s Garden Seminar ‘Landscape Design’ with Tipton Co. Master Gardener Susan Cranford at the Farmers’ Market.
• May 29 (Wed. 12:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.) Munch and Learn at DGG ‘Lilies in the Landscape’ with Fred Winterowd, garden educator. Brown bag it with drink provided – Regular $7 admission Students/Seniors $5.
Margie Densford is a Master Gardener, a member of the Millington City Beautiful Commission, and a member of The Garden Club of Rosemark, a member of the National and Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs.