Ornamental grasses add nice touch
February 11, 2004
The colors, lusters, and forms of ornamental grasses are an interesting addition to any garden. In an area where the more subtle nature of our background colors is an important consideration in garden planning, grasses can be an important accent and feature.
The basic considerations for selecting ornamental grasses include size, form, color and aggressiveness. Light and water factors certainly are key.
Many ornamental grasses are not hardy here, but you will certainly find at least one variety in a local outlet that is for sale. That’s OK. Some ornamental grasses are annuals. Some perennial varieties that are not hardy here can be managed by container-planting outside, ground level in a hole, and then moving to a warmer location for the winter. Mulching can help pull borderline hardy plants through the cold in your particular microclimate. There are many grasses that are rated to zone 4, and some of them survive into Vail. There are also a few worthy ornamentals that are fine to zone 3.
Some ornamental grasses spread vigorously, some at a medium clip, and a few nice ones are not aggressive at all. Be sure to ask or research.
Blue fescue is among the best known ornamentals in the mountains and foothills. As a stand-alone specimen grass, it is very attractive, in fact it looks better by itself, with ample space between other ones when using more than one. It is available in some excellent named varieties. Ornamental green fescues are on the market, too.
Another nice feature of these ornamental fescues is that they are not fast spreaders; on the contrary. They are among the best behaved of the grasses and the varieties are on the compact side, usually 1-2 feet. While they need some moisture in hotter areas, they are not a particularly thirsty grass.
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An alternative to blue fescue for hotter and drier areas is little bluestem. It is somewhat larger, around 2-3 feet. It is also available in named varieties. It is hardy to zone 3.
Another non-aggressive grass is Indian rice grass. This delicate native is used in patches and masses. It is also a smaller grass, around 1-2 feet. It will grow through most of the valley, including some nice wild patches in Wildridge.
Indian grass is not Indian rice grass. In contrast to Indian rice’s light, airy effect, Indian grass is a tall, slender mound with a striking outline. This zone 4 grass is adaptable to different water conditions in our area. It also has nice fall colors.
A number of Miscanthus varieties are hardy to zone 4. Varieties of maiden grass and silver grass are popular additions to many gardens. If you live in the colder end of the valley, try silver banner grass. It is hardy to zone 3, and it stays more contained and attractive in cold areas.
Prairie dropseed is a 3-foot grass that is an attractive shade of green. It is a fairly low-water use grass, but likes an occasional shot if the weather has been dry for a while. It has a nice arching look, and its late season flowers add a nice fragrance. It also has nice fall colors.
Ornamental grasses are well worth considering. They’re among the lowest maintenance of garden plants, and relatively pest-free. Among any type you are considering, look at some of the different named varieties. The Internet and the local libraries have publications with pictures. There are also some nice examples scattered throughout the valley, including in the wild.