By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
Ailene King, Student Intern
University of Vermont
When we say "grasses" to gardeners, most think of something you have to mow. But many ornamental grasses are now becoming popular for several reasons.
Grasses can provide height, color, contrast, wildlife shelter, spiky accents, feathery waves, and low-growing clumps to gardens and landscapes. They can be grown in beds or in pots. They're low maintenance and tough. Many grasses retain their shape and foliage structure through the winter, giving added texture to the garden.
Cultivation of grasses is as old as gardening itself. The grass family, Gramineae, produces the world's cereal crops, which are essential to both human and animal food sources. Each region of the world has its own native grasses, but it is only recently that garden cultivars have been introduced. No matter what kind of conditions exist on a site, there is an ornamental grass that is suitable.
As grasses have increased in popularity, more nurseries and garden centers are stocking them. If you can't find the grasses you are looking for there, then mail order is another option.
If buying locally this spring or summer, remember to check on the general health of the plant. Look for a grass that has colorful foliage and is not too dense, which indicates that the plant has already become pot-bound and might be difficult to establish if planted.
Check the root system if possible. It should hold the soil and be visibly healthy without being overcrowded. Choose a plant that has moist soil. Over-watered or dry soil puts stress on the plant. Even though many grasses tolerate such stress, they won't be in the best of health and may be more susceptible to pests as a result.
When purchasing grasses, keep in mind the ultimate height and spread of the plant, and whether it is suitable for the site. The information panel for each grass should indicate this information. If not, ask someone who works at the nursery or garden center.
The best time for planting grasses is in the spring or fall although in northern regions that don't get too hot in the summer this season works as well. But regardless of when you decide to plant, make sure that the grass is well watered beforehand. When planted in a suitable site, the grass simply requires a little fertilizer initially to give it a boost, an application of mulch, and watering until it is established.
Many grasses are suitable for growing in pots. This is usually the best option when dealing with a root-invasive grass such as Ribbon Grass (Phalaris). And it is the way to grow tender grasses for your area, such as the purple-leaved Foxtail Grass (Pennisetum).
Potted grasses can be grown as single specimens or with other plants in larger containers, such as with flowering annuals around the edge. Grouping several potted plants together can form a versatile display in smaller spaces.
There are many sizes and shapes of containers. Whatever the shape of the pot you choose, make sure it is large enough to contain the grass and allow for more growth. Pot-bound grasses require frequent watering, as well as annual division and repotting.