Ornamental grasses in landscapes add texture and interest | TheFencePost.com

Ornamental grasses in landscapes add texture and interest

Ornamental grasses soften and provide texture to the landscape. (Nebraska Statewide Arboretum photo)

LINCOLN, Neb. – “Ornamental grasses are alive, they move, and subtly soften a building’s impact upon its surroundings and even the way it connects with the ground.” – Michael King and Piet Oudolf

Grasses dominate Nebraska’s wild places. When they’re included in planted landscapes, they draw some of the countryside in with them and connect them to the larger landscape surrounding it. Because of their adaptability and the great variety in shape and size, their use is almost unlimited.

Some are interesting enough to stand on their own as a focal point in the garden. Taller grasses can function as a hedge, providing a green backdrop to perennial beds and screening out unwanted views. Most of them will reach full height in their first year, so they can create an almost immediate barrier while waiting for slower-growing trees and shrubs to take over.

The softness of their texture and loose, informal growing habit enable them to soften transitions between other plants and they can provide support and extended interest for more delicate or leggy flowers. Shorter grasses work well as groundcovers, crowding out weeds. They stand up well against winter winds and many of them even stand straight up after being piled high with snow.

An important characteristic of ornamental grasses is their ability to soften the hard surfaces of the urban environment – sidewalks, buildings, parking areas and pathways. Michael King and Piet Oudolf, the authors of “Gardening with Grasses,” write: “Landscape architects have long appreciated the powerful qualities of ornamental grasses, particularly in relation to modern rectilinear buildings … they have the strength of form to complement such situations without detracting from a building’s visual presence. Nevertheless, they are alive, they move, and subtly soften a building’s impact upon its surroundings and even the way it connects with the ground.”

Pathways are significantly softened by growing grasses alongside them. Functional metal railings become less obtrusive when grasses arch through them. Hard, straight-edged walkways can be softened by a fluid border of grasses, changing them from utilitarian routes into meandering walkways.

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Grasses derive much of their beauty and interest not strictly from their own characteristics but from the way they respond to wind and light and snow and ice, drawing our attention to more subtle characteristics like texture, movement and translucency (a quality landscape designers take full advantage of – planting them in highly visible areas where the low angle of fall and winter sunlight provide dramatic back-lighting).

Some of the best ornamental grasses for the landscape are native to the Great Plains and they can serve a variety of functions in the landscape. Short grasses like blue grama can be mowed for a prairie style lawn; sedges can extend the plant palette for shady or wet areas; sideoats grama, junegrass, little bluestem, and prairie dropseed – knee-high natives of short grass prairies – can give year-round structure and form to perennial beds; and taller grasses like big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass (once key components of the tall grass prairie) can serve as hedges and strong vertical elements to soften the hard edges of urban landscapes.