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Enjoy the Many Benefits of Ornamental Grasses

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I confess, until recently, ornamental grasses didn’t top my list of garden landscaping plants. Easily distracted by the big, blowsy blooms of pink peonies, the airy clouds of teensy purple flowers on Russian sage and the heartbreaking red of oriental poppies, I overlooked the elegant grasses that put on a more subtle show.

But these days I’m taking a closer look. Ornamental grasses, which belong to the same huge family that gives us 10 of the major food crops (think wheat, rice and oats), have a lot to offer in the garden.

They’re earth friendly. With the exception of grasses native to wetlands, which do require more water, most ornamental grasses are drought tolerant once established (water well the first year or two). They’re also relatively free of pests and diseases, which means you don’t need to use nasty chemicals to keep them healthy.

They’re happy in most average garden soils. So, you don’t have to spend a fortune on amending your soil.

There’s a huge variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. From the neat, low-growing mounds of blue fescue to midsize pink muhly grass and tall Miscanthus varieties, there’s an ornamental grass for the front, middle, and back of perennial borders. Some are more rounded and mounding, while others are more upright or fountain-like. The tallest varieties can form useful screens. And ornamental grasses come in many colors, including blues, greens, golds, reds, purples and variegated.

They provide texture, movement and sound. Their blade-shaped leaves contrast nicely with other flowering bedding plants and bushes. Swaying in the slightest breeze, ornamental grasses—especially those that form seedpods—also create a soft, rustling sound.
There’s a grass for every season. If you plant a variety of cool- and warm-season grasses, you’ll have a long, changing palette across the seasons.

They’re easy to maintain. Most ornamental grasses like full sun, but some can take part shade. The only maintenance involved is cutting back spent growth during dormancy and sooner or later, dividing the plant for overall vigor—which gives you new, free plants to enjoy elsewhere or share!

Wildlife loves them. Ornamental grasses can offer food and shelter for wildlife, especially during the lean winter months.

While ornamental grasses offer lots of benefits in the garden, there are two caveats. First, most nurseries only carry a handful of varieties, so if you’re interested in looking at a wider selection, you might need to shop out of area or online. Second, there are a few non-native, invasive species (think pampas grass), so do a little research before buying.
Here are a few resources to help you select ornamental grasses that will look beautiful and do well in your landscape:

Unfortunately, as with most California native plants, don’t expect to find a lot of these in local nurseries. But if you’re determined, you can probably learn how by contacting our local chapter of CNPS at https://chapters.cnps.org/sierrafoothills/.

Rachel Oppedahl is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.

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