Ornamental grasses fit in sustainable landscapes

John Young, Gill, Daniel J., Owings, Allen D.  |  8/21/2009 8:06:03 PM

Sustainable Landscape News Distributed 08/20/09

By LSU AgCenter Horticulturists Dan Gill, Allen Owings and John Young

Ornamental grasses provide nice, low-maintenance options in sustainable landscapes. Many perennial types of ornamental grasses work well in Louisiana.

These grasses produce foliage from spring through early summer and start their reproductive growth with plumes (flowers) from summer through the fall. The variety of colors, textures and sizes adds diversity and dimension to the landscape.

Besides being attractive, these grasses can be useful. They can serve as ground covers, screens, specimen plantings, container plantings and much more. They also are good for erosion control and can help attract wildlife.

Used in theme gardens, ornamental grasses work well as “filler” plants in containers. Some are suited for water garden perimeter plantings or pond edgings. They also may be combined with flowering annuals and perennials in color beds.

When folks think of ornamental grasses, pampas usually comes to mind. It certainly is sustainable – and is tough as nails. But for the most part, pampas grass is not the best ornamental grass to use in a residential landscape because it can become too large and over-bearing. It is also difficult to “clean up” and keep looking pretty during certain times of the year. Pampas grass is more suited to plantings along highways.

Ornamental grasses better-suited to the home landscape include reedgrass (Calamagrostis), weeping lovegrass (Eragrostis), maiden grass (Miscanthus), switchgrass (Pancium), fountaingrass (Pennisetum) and muhly grass (Muhlenbergia).

Maiden grass, fountaingrass, muhly grass and switchgrass are the most planted in Louisiana. Another popular choice is lemon grass (Cymbopogon citrates). It has a lemon scent and is normally included as a companion plant in herb gardens.

The maiden grasses are native to Asia and include many different varieties. Most of these perennials grow tall, up to 5 feet. They include zebra grass, silver arrow grass, slender maiden grass, the Cosmopolitan variety and much more.

The most popular reedgrass is Karl Forester. It was named the perennial plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association a few years ago. Not too many are sold in Louisiana, however.

Purple muhly grass is becoming popular. It has been named the native plant of the year for 2010 in the Mississippi Medallion Plant Promotion program. These plants grow smaller than some of the other ornamental grasses. Clumps of muhly grass produce fine-textured foliage and gorgeous pinkish, reddish, purplish flower plumes in mid-fall through early winter.

Lovegrass is a great, low-growing, clumping grass that is popular on golf courses. It is used for erosion control and low-maintenance landscape options on embankments. Lovegrass also will fit into landscape beds as companion plants for annual and perennial flowers.

Panicum, or switchgrass, comes in gray-leaf and red-leaf forms. Cloud Nine, Shenandoah and Prairie Sky are popular varieties.

Purple fountaingrass is popular and was one of the first ornamental grasses to be planted in masses around 15-20 years ago. It can be an annual or a perennial in Louisiana. Most south Louisiana plantings tend to be perennial if the soil is well-drained and if the winter is mild. North Louisiana plantings most likely will be annuals.

Other new ornamental grasses are coming on the market, so the palette of available plants will continually be changing. Ornamental grasses need very little maintenance. Select a full-sun planting location. Annual fertilization (sometimes that is not even needed) in the spring when new growth commences will be needed on nutrient-depleted soils. Also, most folks prefer to cut back their ornamental grasses just prior to new spring growth.

Come to LaHouse in Baton Rouge to see sustainable landscape practices in action. The home and landscape resource center is located near the intersection of Burbank Drive and Nicholson Drive (Louisiana Highway 30) in Baton Rouge across the street from the LSU baseball stadium. Go online to Louisiana Yards and Neighborhoods for additional information.

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Editor: Mark Claesgens

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