Reclaim the Prairie in Your Back Yard with Ornamental Grasses

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Years ago, I attended a planning meeting for a proposed botanical garden here in Austin when an intense debate broke out between those advocating a showcase for plants from all over the world and those who wanted to see nothing but native plants. The native plant folks were righteous, and threatened to walk out at the mere hint of “one more damned crape myrtle” being planted in Austin. They spoke passionately about their love of Big Tooth Maples and Hill Country columbines and their disdain for gardens “decorated” with foreign species. While they spoke, I was thinking about the plants that dominated this land before we started decorating with crape myrtles. “If they really want native plants for their garden,” I thought, “they should stick with grass.”

Back then, a grass garden would have been considered absurd. Now, however, gardening with grass is the ultimate in cool. I’m not talking about Saint Augustine turf, but rather the dozens of ornamental species that folks are blending into their perennial beds and are choosing instead of shrubs. Everyone seems to love the soft color palette of the grasses, their pleasing textures, and sense of movement they bring to our gardens. One of the most attractive features of the ornamental grasses are their blooms or seed heads which resemble feathery plumes. Best of all, we appreciate their ease of growth. In this former prairie land, once home to buffalo and bluestem, grass is on a roll.

The unlikely sounding star of the native ornamental grasses is Lindheimer muhly grass (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri) this plant has become very popular with home gardeners and is nearly ubiquitous in commercial and institutional landscapes. It is prized for its dependable clumping form, its height (2-5 feet tall,) and adaptability- it thrives in any well drained soil as long as it gets enough sun. Lindheimer muhly has a beautiful show of silver tinted blooms every fall.

Use Lindheimer muhly at the back of your flower beds to contrast its fine texture against broad-leafed perennials or plant great sweeps of them in the place of shrubs. Like many of the ornamental grasses, this plant looks great en masse. An early spring hair cut is all that is required in the way of maintaining most established ornamental grasses, they look great during the winter with their straw colored leaves.

Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is an East Texas native that has become a favorite  Austin import. This is a smaller cousin of Lindheimer muhly, usually growing about two feet tall. The main attraction of this plant is its autumnal show of pink gossamer blooms. Be sure to plant gulf muhly in a place where either the morning or evening sunlight will illuminate these thread-like sprays, the low slanting light will make them glow as they wave in the breeze. Gulf muhly grows best in fertile, well drained soils and is another good companion to our favorite sun loving perennials.

For those who have a lot of shade to deal with, don’t despair, there are ornamental grasses for the sun challenged too. A favorite for shady spots is inland seaoats (Chasmanthium latifolium.) Here in Austin, this is an ideal shade plant for those unafraid to garden with a plant that is considered a tad “rambunctious.” Howard Garrett, a well known organic gardening expert from the Dallas area claims that inland seaoats, if left unchecked, will abduct your children and pets. I don’t know about that, but, I have seen it colonize large swaths of terrain along the sides of Barton Creek and other locales where it benefits from occasional flooding or watering. Inland seaoats gets its name from its oat-like seed heads, which are quite striking. Many folks like to use the seed heads in dried arrangements and I am told that if you are aggressive about cutting them off, you can keep the plant in check.

Mexican wire grass (Stipa tenuissima) is my favorite ornamental grass. It is also known as Mexican feather grass or Texas wire grass, so I am guessing it is at least bi-cultural if not native. What I do know is that if you have very well drained soil and light shade, this plant could battle inland seaoats and Godzilla to a stand still. Last year, we had one pot of Mexican wire grass in our back yard. This year, we have ten thousand little wire grass pups coming up from one corner of our yard to the other. Talk about your reconquista! This aptly named grass has the coolest texture of any of the grasses, ultra fine and wiry. I also love the tawny colors of the mature plants as well as the bright green scrub brush looking pups. If you plant this one and it seems too aggressive for you, remember that the first time I planted some (in my old garden) I killed it with love: too much water.

There are many other cool ornamental grasses to choose from. Nearly any member of the fountain grass clan (Pennisetum) or the maiden grasses (Miscanthus) are also worth experimenting with. (Though beware Pennisetum setaceum, it is THE Godzilla of weeds!) I love the fact that we are reclaiming our prairie heritage and have discovered the joy to be found in the simplest of plants. Lets not get too dogmatic about it, however, when it comes to righteousness, just say mow. 

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