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Pretty Grasses, Enduring Beauty.

By Skip Richter
Contributing Editor

Great landscapes are a visual banquet of colors, textures and three-dimensional designs. Great landscaping is an art. The canvas is our property, and our paints are the many plants that we spread across the beds, borders and lawn areas.

Beautiful landscapes include a variety of colors in bold swaths. They include plants of numerous sizes and shapes. They also feature a variety of textures as broad foliage contrasts with fine-textured foliage to add interest to the picture we are creating.

Ornamental grasses provide fine, linear textures to the scene. Their long arching foliage contrasts with the broad leaves of most other plants. Many ornamental grasses produce feathery or wispy seed heads which are especially attractive when covered with dew or frost.

Grasses are attractive during the growing seasons, but many provide unique winter interest. One of my favorite features of ornamental grasses is their graceful movement in the breeze. You've no doubt seen the waves created by wind in a wheat field. The movement of a large clump of grass is likewise unique, adding a peaceful feel to the landscape.

These plants are becoming quite popular in our Texas landscapes. If you haven't utilized some of these versatile plants in your home landscape, now is a great time to add some. Here are a few of my favorite ornamental grasses for Texas.

PENNISETUM
Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) makes an attractive clumping grass that at 2-1/2 feet tall and wide is compact enough for many landscape locations. In fall, white fluffy seed heads appear to decorate the mounded plants like fuzzy foxtails. The variety 'Moudry' has black-tipped bloom heads that are quite ornamental. But be forewarned: it is a vigorous reseeder, and gardeners should be warned about its potential for invasiveness. A form with whitish plumes called 'Hameln' does not have the invasive tendencies and is an attractive, well-mannered garden plant. The dwarf variety 'Little Bunny' stays under a foot in height.

Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') is taller growing, reaching to a height of about 4 feet. The deep reddish burgundy foliage is topped with lighter burgundy bloom heads in summer and fall that arch over, gracefully pointing in the direction of the wind. Purple fountain grass provides a very striking break to the sea of green found in most landscapes. Its bold color is a real attention-getter although, unlike dwarf fountain grass, it is not dependably hardy in most areas of zone 8. Nevertheless, even as an annual it is worth planting. This plant is a show-stopper in the landscape and makes an excellent specimen plant.

For an annual treat include ornamental millet (Pennisetum glaucum). The 2003 All America selection 'Purple Majesty' sports broad strappy dark purple foliage and bloom heads that point straight upward.

Pennisetums need moist soil conditions and plenty of sunlight. A little boost of fertilizer occasionally will help encourage good growth and vigor.

MUHLY
Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) forms rather inconspicuous 1- to 2-foot tall plants that take center stage in late summer through fall with 3-foot tall wispy bloom heads that appear dark purplish from the sunny side and really light up with a bright pinkish ruby color when backlit. Plant it where the rays of the rising or setting sun will shine through the seed heads to light them up like ruby-colored smoke rising above the foliage. Because of its small stature, it can be used in many landscape situations where a larger ornamental grass would not work. Gulf muhly is not very drought tolerant and does best with moderately moist soil and good drainage. Provide it a full sun exposure.

Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) stands about 4 to 5 feet tall with large fine textured seed heads that reach to 6 feet or more in height, giving the entire plant a soft wispy look. The plants appear as light-green arching mounds. In winter the stalks turn straw-colored for a nice winter feature. When frost settles on the seed heads, they light up in the early morning sun. Provide this muhly a part-shade to full-sun location. It can take moderate drought.

Big muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri) bears the name of the father of Texas botany, Ferdinand Lindheimer. It forms 3- to 5-foot clumps of blue-green foliage with narrow seed stalks appearing in late summer and fall. This muhly is a good alternative to pampas grass although much smaller in stature. It is quite drought tolerant and loves a full-sun location.

Deer muhly (Muhlenbergia rigens) is, in a sense, a smaller version of Big muhly, reaching only about a foot tall. It is also drought tolerant and will grow in part shade to full sun. This muhly makes a good choice where a smaller ornamental grass is desired in a low-care setting.

MISCANTHUS
Miscanthus sinensis is perhaps the favorite of all ornamental grasses. Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus') forms 5-foot tall mounds of long narrow foliage. In late summer, copper-colored bloom heads appear above the foliage, providing beauty and graceful movement with the slightest breeze. Left over winter the foliage and seed heads turn a beautiful golden straw color. This makes for a beautiful feature all winter long, especially when frosts form on the seed heads.

The many other forms of Miscanthus offer quite a variety of ornamental interest. Zebra grass (M. sinensis 'Zebrinus') and porcupine grass (M. sinensis 'Strictus') have broad yellowish bands across the long narrow foliage. Silver grass or variegated maiden grass (M. sinensis 'Variegatus') is very bright with stripes of white and green running lengthwise down the arching blades. For tighter spaces M. sinensis 'Little Kitten' forms a mound of foliage a little over a foot high with seed heads rising above the foliage. M. sinensis 'Adagio' is a little larger, forming a 2- to 3-foot mound of foliage. These grasses enter their "second season" in late summer through fall as their fuzzy seed heads emerge above the clumps.

Plant Miscanthus in full sun. Once established its watering needs are minimal. Fertilize lightly and occasionally to promote moderate vigor.

OTHER GREAT GRASSES
Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) is a beautiful ornamental grass equally suited to use as individual clumps or massed as a groundcover for sunny areas. Its wiry, fine-textured foliage reaches a height of about 18 inches. Seed heads appear among the foliage, adding a wispy, feathery appearance to the mound and adding a unique texture to the landscape. This Texas native is evergreen but will go dormant in summer if not watered. I can't think of a better, pest-free, carefree choice for a natural area, or, if you like, for a unique, attractive specimen in a large container or traditional planting bed.

Inland seaoats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is one of the most shade- tolerant ornamental grasses. Its seed heads look like oats, bending the stalks over in a beautiful arching form. Their stalks make nice additions to dried arrangements. It is well mannered in dry shade, but if provided rich soil with extra water and fertilizer it can become overzealous, spreading beyond its area.

Ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis) is a relative newcomer in many Texas gardens. Its pink seed heads rising above the small clumps of silvery blue-green foliage are striking. 'Pink Crystals' is a popular variety. Hardy only to the mid- to low 20s, it is an annual in the northern third of the state and a perennial in zone 8 and higher.

I have deliberately ignored Pampas grass as it is a monster, reaching to 8 feet or more tall and becoming unmanageable as it gets older and the interior dies out. However, for folks that love the plumes, there is a smaller, finer-textured variety called dwarf Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana 'Pumila') which reaches only 4 to 6 feet tall with 6- to 7-foot flower plumes. It blooms better than the common type. You'll still need to prune the razor-sharp foliage periodically to keep the plants looking fresh and attractive.

DESIGNING WITH GRASSES
Ornamental grasses make excellent specimen plants. Their fine lines are a great contrast to the broad foliage of other garden plants. Include them with perennial hibiscus, cannas and other large-leaved species for a striking effect.
Choose variegated forms to use around dark-foliaged plants, especially as a foreground plant so the dark backdrop can showcase the grasses' narrow leaves and light colors.

Some grasses make great container plants. Select a container large enough to accommodate the particular grass you choose. Keep in mind that you'll have to water potted grass more often to maintain healthy green foliage.

Ornamental grasses are great lining a planting bed. Choose the taller ones for use as a backdrop for other plantings. And, as I mentioned earlier, consider lighting. Most of these grasses need lots of sun to perform well. Their best ornamental effect is when you can enjoy them both frontlit and backlit at certain times of the day. Go out to a patio or other sitting area and consider where a grass either in ground or in a large container might provide the desired effect.

MAINTAINING GRASSES
Ornamental grasses can get rather untidy in time as old dead foliage is left among the new living leaves and seed heads. Cleaning them up will really keep them fresh and attractive, even if just done once a year.

In late winter, prior to the onset of new growth, trim the clumps back to 6 to 12 inches high depending on the original size of the plant. Use the trimmings for mulch around the garden or compost them.

While some commercial landscape care companies do this trimming in early winter, I prefer to wait until late winter for most types of ornamental grasses so I can enjoy their winter interest rather than look at the stump-like clumps all winter long.

Ornamental grasses can be divided almost any time of the year if provided a little TLC during the hottest months. The best time to divide the clumps is in late winter to early spring. Simply dig a clump and then use a shovel with a sharpened edge or a sharp butcher knife to cut the clump into several sections. Reset them at the same level they were growing previously and water them in well. Fertilize the newly set sections with a couple of tablespoons of lawn fertilizer 2 and 4 weeks later, watering it in well after applications.

Consider adding some ornamental grasses to your landscape. The above species and varieties are but a few of the many wonderful choices available. Late summer through fall is an excellent time to plant them.



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