Last week I discussed the many varieties of grasses that work well for tough, dry spots in full sun. But what about those of us who deal with poorly drained soils and/or shady areas? Options for grasses may seem limited at first glance; however, there are many choices for these equally tough areas that will help brighten and liven up your garden.
Grasses and sedges for wet sites
The generally flat nature of this region means that in some low-lying areas, even a brief rain turns your yard into a soppy mess, while new construction and the resultant compacted soils can further exacerbate the problem. And even yards in full sun may still have areas of standing water for days on end. So what are some grassy solutions for these areas? For a low-growing option in full sun to partly shaded sites, try Carex grayi, or Gray’s sedge. This low-growing sedge will thrive in wet areas and the light green, spiky seed heads add an unusual touch to a wet border. Another sedge that grows a bit taller and likes sun-shade conditions is hop sedge. That’s right, this 3’ tall clumping sedge has seed heads that resemble the cones of hops.
Of the many grasses from which you can choose for wet sites, there are probably none more adaptable than the non-invasive varieties of Miscanthus sp. One variety inparticular, ‘Variegatus’ is a clump-forming type that reaches heights of 6-feet tall. In a garden, pair it with white flowered-annuals and perennials to give the garden a palate of white to “cool” off the garden. For a brilliant display of color this fall, give Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’ a try. The green foliage in summer will give way to bright red and orange in the fall, and is topped off by magenta blooms that eventually turn white. This cultivar only grows to about 4.5-feet tall and is more erect so is a good choice for those areas with limited space.
If you happen to have shade and moisture, give the native river oats a try. This highly adaptable grass tolerates moist environments, but will thrive in areas with dry shade as well. It grows to 4 feet tall when placed in full sun. If you have dry shady sites, or areas in full sun that are consistently moist, try Golden variegated sweet flag which grows to 15 inches tall. It works best when planted in masses or when used to accent shaded walkways or garden hardscape features. It also does well as a dense groundcover in moist, full-sun areas.
Grasses and sedges for shade
If you want to re-create a lush forest understory, there is quite possibly no better combination than the many species of ferns and grasses and/or sedges. For example, black mondo grass will help intensify the green fronds of northern maidenhair fern and will add a focal point in your shade garden. Cherokee sedge is 18”-tall sedge, has a mostly upright form with a slight mounding habit and is awesome when planted in large sweeps along shaded pathways. It is also evergreen and will persist through the winter. For dry shade, Korean feather reed grass is a 4-foot tall grass that produces feathery plumes in mid-summer. ‘Goldtau’ Deschampia cespitosa is a 2-foot, cool season clumping grass that produces golden-colored flowers that persist well into the winter months. ‘Burgundy Bunny’ fountain grass has a compact habit that reaches about 1.5 feet. In summer, this cultivar will produce bottlebrush plumes that look fantastic in containers or when planted en masse along borders. It is drought tolerant once established and does well in sun to part-shade.
These days I see more and more ornamental grasses adorning home landscapes, parking lots, and even roadsides. And why not? These tough and versatile workhorses also provide a unique quality to our landscapes that is both pleasing and functional. And though pink muhly will continue to be commonplace in our landscapes, it is worth the effort to seek out some of these ‘newer’ ornamental grasses. Use them as specimens or planted in mass the decision is yours, but whatever you do, plant them.
For more information on ornamental grasses, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Brunswick County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.