Grasses in the Garden

Maiden Grass plumes backlit by the morning sun.

The natural surroundings of the coast incline us to design with the beauty and fluidity of grasses. Creating this beauty requires the right selection of grasses for the garden. Beautiful gardens, whether in magazines, across town or a step out the door, have that magical sense of place when all the plants share a communal role in the landscape. Blending and merging parts of the garden with the landscape can create a natural rhythm.

Plants should happily grow in areas where they have adequate resources. Plants that are lackluster in performance could be battling less than ideal cultural conditions, thus changing the rhythm of the garden. Grasses are versatile plants serving various design functions and adapting to a degree of soils. Japanese forest grass makes a lush shade groundcover around the base of a tree. Switchgrass (Panicum) provides architectural structure and a backdrop for early to late season perennials. Switchgrass and maiden grass (Miscanthus) are picture worthy in the winter, with beige colors against snow and plumes backlit by winter’s glow.

The versatility of grasses can serve any function in the garden: as a hedgerow, as swaths in a meadow, in a mixed container, along a waterside or edging a shaded path. Here are a few guidelines in choosing and maintaining grasses:

Grasses can be used as the backbone of gardens, providing a backdrop and structure. Cool-season grasses prefer cooler temperatures and bloom earlier in the season; warm-season grasses start breaking dormancy later in the spring as the soil warms up, and bloom mid- to late-summer persisting through autumn. Cutting back cool- or warm-season grasses later in the spring can delay flowering, giving an opportunity to sync with other perennials or later season interest. Choose a grass that will serve a purpose or several purposes: Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica), although not truly a grass, is a native lawn alternative that will cut down maintenance and water bills; or try mown down Mosquito Grass (Bouteloua gracilis) for its tough soil adaptability. When planting a large area with grasses, keep the plant palette simple with a minimal number of varieties, and don’t skimp out on space – the fuller the better. If grasses become bare in the center, they need to be divided to reinvigorate them. Perennials make for attractive companions alongside grasses, especially ones who hold structure such as Tall Verbena (Verbena bonariensis) or American Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis).

As fundamental as they can be in the garden, for me grasses will always be tied to the memory of growing up down the street from the ocean, hearing and feeling them move with the wind and shaping the mood of the dunes. I believe that is part of their magic. Grasses bring us their simplicity and movement that make them powerful elements in the garden, and what many of us call home.

Find many of these grasses and more at Cape Shore Gardens, located at 1028 Rt. 9 S., Cape May Court House. For more information, call (609) 465-5161.


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