From the Garden Gate: Have You Tried Ornamental Grasses?

May 23, 2013

Purple Love Grass
Credit Betty Wargo /

Here's the next edition our our weekly gardening series, "From the Garden Gate." Murray resident Roy Helton divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening.

Who among the clan of devout gardeners doesn’t yearn for perennials that are easy to plant, require little or no care, serve multiple purposes, and are virtually indestructible—having almost no pests or diseases?  I can just hear my neighbor’s answer to that question:  “Oh, yeah, I know; you’re talking about weeds.”

But gardeners know better. To fill this particular bill, we nominate the ornamental grasses, the beautiful descendents of those amazing plants that first became widespread on earth way back in the Cretaceous Period. 

We value the ornamental grasses for their special aesthetic qualities, for a beauty that is not quite the same as what we see in other garden plants.  A block of red tulips in the spring or a bank of blue asters in the fall offers a solid mass of color to delight the eye.  But grasses possess a special combination of line and texture and ebb and flow unlike other plants.  

Grasses have an aesthetic dimension that few other garden plants have—and that’s motion.  Grasses, especially the larger ones, come alive in the wind, swaying and dancing, calm one minute and frantic the next.

The seedheads of grasses present an almost limitless array of structures, ranging from the dangling, tremulous seeds of Stipa gigantea to explosions of white clouds atop the twelve foot stalks of Ravenna and Pampas grasses.  Before you decide on grasses for your own garden, it’s definitely worth looking through pictures that show them in their maturity when they put on their most interesting displays.

An especially pleasing end-of-season display comes from one of my favorites among the smaller grasses. That would be Eragrostis spectabilis, admittedly a name that only a mother could love, but whose common designation, Purple Love Grass, sounds far more promising.  It has a height and spread of about 18 to 24 inches, and though the foliage looks pretty mundane through most of the growth season, in the late summer and fall, those who grow it will reap their reward.  The plant is transformed into a small cloud of pale shades of purple and pink.  Its airy plumage has an almost magical, fairy-like quality to it.  But after these fragile seedheads turn beige, do remember to trim them back.  Otherwise, they break off and get carried around the garden by every breeze as if they were miniature, delicate tumbleweeds.

Grasses can add interest to displays of flowers which might otherwise be fairly predictable to the eye.  You might want to punctuate a bed of low growing flowers with some clumps of Festuca glauca, aka Blue Fescue—a small grass that looks for all the world like a little silvery blue hedgehog.  

This season I am going to try to imitate (in my own particularly amateur way) an effect I saw two summers ago in flower beds along the Champs Elysees in Paris. In beds predictably packed with masses of colorful short to medium annuals, the gardeners had interspersed specimens of Stipa tenuissima, aka Feather grass or Ponytail grass.  It grows about two feet tall, grouped tightly at the base and opening up much like an old fashioned shaving brush at the top. Every breath of wind sets it swaying.  The thing I liked best about the effect when I saw it was that it presented such a contrast in shape and texture and even movement to the formality of the massed annuals.  It’s almost as if the display demanded your attention, and then said to you, “Now, think about this relationship.”  Yea, I know, that’s the kind of stuff gardeners notice.

Well, here’s to you—from the garden gate.