They catch the light – especially the low, soft slanting light of Autumn; they dance in the slightest breeze; they hold dew drops and rain drops like pearls, winking on a string; they arch and drape and cascade, adding both vertical and horizontal beauty and interest to any garden; they are often drought tolerant and deer resistant, and many of them provide both forage and shelter for native and migrating song birds. They are ornamental grasses, and with more varieties, colors, shapes and sizes (and native choices) available to home gardeners every year, there is one (or 30) to brighten and dress-up just about any garden throughout the seasons. Photo: Deer grass under planted with blue fescue in the California display garden at the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens.
A great place to see a wide selection of ornamental grasses in their full, seasonal glory is at our own regional McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding. The McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, across the Sundial bridge from the main portion of Turtle Bay Exploration Park, is made up of 20 acres of mediterranean-climate display gardens and several specialty gardens and displays. The Arboretum extends over 200 acres with direct links to the award-winning Sacramento River Trail. Ornamental grasses are featured plant types in all five of the world’s mediterranean climate zones represented in the Gardens: Chilean Garden, Mediterranean Basin Garden, South African Garden, Australian Garden, and California Garden.
Photo: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ glowing in the Autumn light.
“Grasses” are members of the Grass (Poaceae) Family of plants, which is according to the “Jepson Manual of the Higher Plants of California” includes between “650–900 genera, and plus or minus 10,000 species worldwide. As such it is one of the largest families on the planet, and by many measurements it is one of the most “economically important of any plant family.” Grasses (and their seeds) constitute one of the world’s largest food sources in the form of “wheat, rice, maize, millet, sorghum, sugar cane, and forage crops.”
In addition to true grasses, discussions about ornamental grasses often include discussion about grass-like plants – most often similar plants from the Sedge (Cyperaceae) and or Rush (Juncaceae) plant families. While I am not sure it is completely fool-proof, a saying on how to tell the difference between a grass, a sedge and rush, is: “Sedges have Edges, and Rushes are Round, Grasses have Nodes from the top to the ground.” And so far in my experience, this holds true. Run your hands along a blade of Santa Barbara sedge (Carex barbarae) and you will feel the edgey spine running down the back of the grassy blade; feel a stem of our California native rush (Juncus effusus) and it is round – like a small straw. Both of these plants are sold as ornamentals for the home garden, often with the other ornamental grasses, and they provide a similar look and feel in the garden. Photo: A streamside California native Carex.
“The McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens must have upwards of 50 varieties of ornamental grasses,” Lisa Endicott shared with me, “and we might have more native California deer grass than anywhere in the world,” she once told me laughing. “The deer don’t actually like it, which is a good thing, but the quail love it for its seed and shelter.” Photo: A sweep of deer grass.
One significant caveat to the beauty and allure of ornamental grasses is the issue of invasive tendencies. We all need to familiarize ourselves with those ornamental grasses that are, or could be potentially be invasive no matter where we live. Pampas grass (Cortaderia) is one such invasive plant across the country, which was brought in as an ornamental and became an invasive danger to our wildlands and waterways. For us in California, the California Invasive Plant Council’s on-line inventory of known invasive plants can help us stay on top of what we should not be planting, and talking to our reputable nursery people and growers also helps.
Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) along with Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) and feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) are three grasses Lisa recommends for mid-size North State home gardens. “Grasses have such beautiful form and movement in the garden,” Lisa reiterates and they are very easy to take care of, which is important to us home gardeners, but perhaps even more important to Lisa and her staff taking care of 20 acres!
At the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, the single biggest maintenance task annually with their grasses is when many of them are cut back – almost to the ground – each spring. “It’s one of the few things we do with bigger hedgers,” Lisa explains. “When the grasses are showing new spring green growth in their crowns, we go in and cut back the whole plant to just a few inches above the ground. The plant will once again be its full size by summer.” Grasses in general will take moderate to low water and many are happy in lean soils, but also tolerant of richer garden soil.
A few grasses are not cut back every year, including the deer grass, which is cut back every two or three years “as it is looking beat up,” and the Mexican feather grass is not cut back rather the seeds, which clump along the tops of the grass stems, are combed out by hand. “This grass has a lovely form, but it can re-seed itself pretty happily, so pay attention to removing its seeds if you don’t want much more of it.” Photo: Mexican feather grass accented by a Salvia bonariensis bloom. Generally speaking, grasses – especially bunch grasses, meaning those that naturally form round clumps – make great companion plants for other plants to grow through, or to contrast against. Photo: California native purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra).
Other grasses, sedges and rushes showing off at the Gardens right now include mosquito grass (Bouteloua gracilis, shown above), Cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum), Tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), ‘Morning light’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) and red rays switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch’).
Many of the grasses, sedges and rushes that you see and admire in the display gardens are also available at the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens’ nursery, where the plants are all propagated on site. Also invaluable to us North State gardeners, every plant in the nursery is listed and cross-referenced with more information regarding size and recommended care ON-LINE from the Nursery section of the Turtle Bay website. Let me say this again – this is an invaluable resource available to us 24/7. The staff are also wonderful, friendly and knowledgeable resources, but they do have to sleep.
October 23 – Redding: McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens at Turtle Bay Ornamental Grasses in the Garden 9 am – Noon. With their variety of form, size and texture, ornamental grasses have earned their place in the garden. Join Turtle Bay Horticulture Manager Lisa Endicott for this informative class covering grasses, rushes, sedges, and restios, followed by a short tour of the many species displayed in the Gardens and offered for sale in the Nursery.Members and Turtle Bay volunteers FREE, nonmembers $3 Meet at the Arboretum & Botanical Gardens Office – 1135 Arboretum Drive next to Nursery Greenhouse (Take N. Market Street and turn on Arboretum Drive. Take the right fork. Nursery on immediate left)
Further Reading: Many good books are available on ornamental grasses. Available in stock or by order from Lyon Books in Chico, I like and use the two below regularly:
“The Timber Press Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses,” by Rick Darke.
“Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design,” by Nancy Ondra
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.