Ornamental grasses are fast becoming one of the most popular additions for landscape beds. Their graceful, arching foliage and colorful plumes provide seasonal interest year-round. In the landscape ornamental grasses can be used as a backdrop to accentuate a centerpiece plant or as a feature planting on their own. Their relative low-maintenance and ease of establishment make ornamental grasses an excellent addition for any sunny landscape, plus deer do not like to eat them.
Benefits of ornamental grasses
Aside from their attractiveness, there are many other benefits of ornamental grasses. Deer and pest pressure can be a limiting factor when considering certain plants for the Cape Fear region. If you have trouble establishing plants because of deer, ornamental grasses are an excellent choice. Deer avoid eating ornamental grasses, preferring instead to feed on flowers and shrubs. Adding ornamental grasses and other deer resistant plants to your landscape is the most effective way to minimize deer damage in your yard.
Many of the grasses grown in this region are highly resistant to insect and disease pressure, are tolerant of heat and drought, and can withstand long periods of ground moisture. Other than some general maintenance in the winter, ornamental grasses require very little pruning and upkeep, so are ideal if you are looking for a low-maintenance option for your landscape.
Aside from the aesthetic and low-maintenance benefits, many ornamental grasses are prized for their ability to stabilize sandy soils and provide a nesting habitat and food source for wildlife. If you live near the beach or have very sandy soil, consider adding grasses. Their fibrous root system stabilizes soil by tightly binding loose sand particles. Beach and dune erosion is a major concern in this region, and you can help protect our beaches by planting native grasses like sea oats and bitter panicum. Many of our native grasses will also provide nesting sites and food for birds, and are also a food source for butterfly caterpillars.
What varieties are available?
There are many ornamental grasses available, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Because of its versatility and beauty, muhly grass is one of the most popular grasses in our region. Available in pink or white, muhly grass is a native perennial grass that adds a delicate touch of color in the fall when the blooms make their appearance.
Another native grass that makes an attractive addition to the landscape is panic grass, also known as switch grass. This grass prefers full sun, and tolerates moist or dry soil. Many varieties are available. ‘Cloud Nine’ is one of the tallest, reaching six feet in height, while ‘Prairie Fire’ is among the shortest, topping out at three to four feet and boasting burgundy tipped foliage.
For those living on the beach, sea oats can make a wonderful addition to an area. This plant grows two to four feet in height, and bears large conspicuous drooping seed heads that turn ivory in mid-summer.
Establishment and maintenance
Just as with any other plant, proper soil preparation and maintenance are vital for the establishment of ornamental grasses. Most grasses will need to be watered every three or four days in the first few weeks of establishment. If you have really sandy soil, you will need to water more frequently. After the first month you can cut back on watering to once a week or only when the plants appear water stressed.
Ornamental grasses are adaptable to poor soils. A light application of slow release or organic fertilizer in spring will help grasses establish but overfertilizing can lead to excessive growth, resulting in floppy grasses. Grasses growing in too much shade will also tend to be floppy so be sure to plant ornamental grasses in areas that receive at least six hours of direct sun each day. After establishment, ornamental grasses are very low maintenance. Grasses should be cut back within 6-8 inches above the ground in late winter to ensure a healthy flush of growth in the spring.
For more information on ornamental grasses and other landscape plants, visit the NC Extension plants database at ces.ncsu.edu. You can also submit gardening questions via the site’s ‘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 Brunswick County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at Charlotte_Glen@ncsu.edu.