NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) -- Gardeners wanting a decorative shoulder to lean on should weigh the considerable charms of ornamental grasses, which can be used for everything from erosion control to stiffening the spines of flower arrangements.
Grasses are durable and graceful -- easily among the most versatile plants in our landscape.
''Grasses can provide height, color, contrast, wildlife shelter, spiky accents, feathery waves and low-growing clumps to gardens and landscapes,'' says Leonard Perry, extension professor with the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science.
''They can be grown in beds or in pots. They're low maintenance and tough,'' Perry says. ''Many grasses retain their shape and foliage structure through the winter, giving added texture to the garden.''
Grasses have been around as long as the practice of gardening, but were nurtured primarily for their nutritional value as cereal grains, Perry says. Their popularity as ornamentals reached new heights in the Orient and Edwardian England, and climbed again in the early 1980s as hardier hybrids were developed and introduced to the U.S. market.
''They have become quite popular and used in warmer states, with potential for still increased use in many northern climates,'' Perry says.
The best time to plant new stands of ornamental grasses is spring or early summer. Mass them around flowering perennial and annual beds or for contrast near shrubs. Most grow quickly. Most prefer full sun.
Some varieties present challenges similar to raising gangly adolescents: They need space. Ornamental grasses can grow over 18 feet high. That means grouping them six feet or more apart.
Be aware that some grasses (Ribbon Grass) can be root invasive, so place them in pots or pass them by when strolling garden store aisles.
Most people probably envision Pampas Grass when considering ornamentals. It is a tall, ostrich-plumed variety that serves well as a screen or eye-arresting specimen plant. But grasses come in many heights, colors and textures.
Uprights can bring soothing sound and motion to a stationary landscape. When grouped, they offer up nature's version of the stadium wave -- wind-driven ripples across slopes or along wooded borders (Mexican feather grass).
Many display a luminous, foxtail-like softness when backlit by the sun (Fountain grass).
Others provide ground cover, perhaps a picturesque prop reflected at pond-side (Dwarf Japanese Silver Grass). Ornamental grasses can thrive as gap-fillers in rock gardens (Miniature Variegated Sweet Flag, Bearskin Fescue).
When dried, medium to tall varieties serve well as sentinels when placed in containers alongside door entries (Ravenna grass), as windbreaks (Giant Miscanthus) or for softening the look of fence-lines (Prairie Dropseed, Indian Grass).
Lemon grass stems add flavor to salsas, stews and meats.
Ornamental grasses are easy to care for. Perennial varieties that go winter dormant can be restored to life in spring by trimming to within four or so inches from the ground. Wait too long, though, and you run the risk of stripping the new season's growth.
Many ornamental grasses are drought, insect or deer resistant. Ensure, however, that the grasses you buy are suited to your hardiness zone. Many perennial varieties become annual when exposed to harsh climates.
''They are really in a unique class to themselves, not having the showy flowers of most garden annuals and perennials,'' Perry says.
Some gardeners find their grass textures unattractive, he says, but most say they are pleasing to the eye if they exhibit silvery fall plumes of various sorts, as many do. That also adds interest to the garden in the fall and winter.
On the Net: Landscaping with ornamental grasses: http://www.uvm.edu/(tilde)pss/; http://buckeyegardening.com
Nurseries specializing in ornamental grasses: http://www.kurtbluemel.com; http://www.santarosagardens.com
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Dean Fosdick retired in May after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net
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