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The Green, Green (& Other Colors!) Grasses of Home

What do Dean Martin, Porter Wagoner and Joan Baez have in common? They all were among dozens of musicians who recorded Claude “Curly” Putman Jr.’s iconic song The Green, Green Grass of Home. The song is a total tear-jerker, but its popularity was no doubt due at least partly to the deep emotional associations so many of us have had with feeling green grass under our bare feet. Fresh, cool, tidy blankets of it lined the lawns of so many small town and suburban lawns of our childhoods. Many people still wouldn’t trade anything for the manicured, green grass lawns that mean home to them.

But I’m here to tell you:  Using grass in your landscape today goes way beyond the zoysia, Bermuda and centipede grasses you may have wiggled your bare toes in, whether you choose to have a traditional lawn today or not.

On a recent visit to Baker Environmental Nursery in Hoschton (pronounced Hoosh-ton…I asked), I was amazed at the number and variety of ornamental grasses, sedges and rushes that thrive in our region. They’re technically three separate groups of plants, but since they’re all grass-like, I’ll refer to them all casually as grasses here, as a practical matter. It’s just us friends talking, right?

multi-colored grasses
Baker Environmental Nursery in Hoschton, Georgia, is a wholesaler of grasses, sedges, rushes and a variety of native perennials and other plants. I was amazed at the sea of grasses lined up in neat rows

The variety of colors was remarkable. I saw dazzling pink muhli, (Muhlenbergia capillaris), vivid blue lyme grass (Leymus arenarius “Blue-Dune”) and several buttery-yellow species of the Carex and Acorus genera.

If grasses have gotten a reputation for being boring over the years—and they have—it’s probably because their use has been limited to just a few types, and those few types have been overused. Take pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), for example.

hiding a utility box with pampas grass
The homeowners was trying to hide an ugly utility box, but succeeded only in drawing attention to it with this unwieldy pampas grass, now grossly overgrown. This grass has been overused in landscapes for years.

Some people love it, but I’m not fond of this grass, which has razor-sharp blades for leaves and can grow to a monstrous size, with plumes reaching up to 12 feet. People often plant it to hide eyesores in their yards, but its skinny, upright shape actually screams “Look at me!”

But whatever you want to say about it, pampas grass has been overused. It’s just not a very imaginative choice. (Yawn.) Boring. The same could be said of the clumping type of liriope (Liriope muscari), or monkey grass, which is used ubiquitously as border planting along beds, walkways and driveways. I don’t really have any major gripes against monkey grass, but again, it’s just a little uninspired.

Why not liven your landscape up with some more exciting grasses? They come in myriad colors, textures and heights. And you can find grasses for nearly every purpose and growing condition. Here are some of my favorites.

pink muhli grass
Pink muhly is a showstopper in the fall as an accent plant or planted in large groupings or rows.

This stunning beauty proves grasses can be anything but boring. Pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) grows in clumps up to 2-3 feet tall and 3 feet wide when mature. In late summer and fall, the grass produces wispy, purple-pink stalks that can reach up to 5 feet tall.  Muhly grass is easy to grow, low maintenance and drought, deer and insect resistant.

switch grass
Native grasses like switch grass are not only beautiful, they also provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife and support many important pollinators.

Oak sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), so-called because it often grows among oak trees, is a lovely native groundcover that likes dry, shady conditions, such as beneath trees and in wooded areas where many grasses and other plants won’t grow. It’s 12- to 18-inch stems tumble over each other so they resemble a tousled head of hair.

Native Carex grass
Oak sedge is a great choice for groundcover under trees and in wooded areas. It prefers dry, shady conditions that many other plants don’t like

Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) has a fine texture with needle-thin, light green foliage and wispy, wheat-colored seed heads that sway to the slightest breeze. It’s very drought tolerant, enjoying dry soil and full sun. Reaching up to 2 feet tall, it works great en mass or as accent plants around the landscape.

drought tolerant Nassella grass
Mexican feather grass works well planted in mass groupings or as accent plantings, as shown here

Switch grass, (Panicum virgatum) is a native prairie grass across the U.S.—one of many that has been developed for use as a landscape ornamental. It has a dense, upright form reaching a height of between 2 ½ to 5 feet, so it makes a great backdrop or seasonal screen whether planted as a focal point, in small groupings or in masses. Its deep roots make it a good solution where erosion is a problem. Switch grass does best in full sun with moist soil; it’s drought and heat tolerant. The plants bloom in midsummer, producing airy flower spikes that project a foot or two above the foliage.

 

 

You may recognize this plant since it seems to be showing up everywhere—without having been planted. Silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis), also known as maiden grass, is an exotic plant from eastern Asia with many dozens of varieties. Some of them are dramatic and beautiful, but the species has worked its way into Category 2 of Georgia’s invasive species list. Non-native plant species that become invasive can take over native plants’ space and resources, harming the ecosystem. Once established, they can be very hard to remove or control.

So, while you should stay away from invasive species, and maybe think twice about that pampas grass (That’s just my opinion—I welcome yours.), I hope you’ll consider stepping out a little and trying some ornamental grasses in your landscape. With so many varieties and so many ways to use them, I’m sure you’ll never again think of grasses as being boring.

 

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