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updated: 6/28/2013 6:26 AM

Art in the garden: Ornamental grasses add texture to the garden

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  • A variegated maidenhair grass is lovely when backlit by the setting sun.

    A variegated maidenhair grass is lovely when backlit by the setting sun.

  • The seedheads of switch grass mingle beautifully with Joe Pye weed.

    The seedheads of switch grass mingle beautifully with Joe Pye weed.

By Diana Stoll

Ornamental grasses offer fine texture while adding bold presence to the landscape. They can be used as accent plants in mixed borders or as backdrops for perennials. Some grasses are lovely edging a pathway while others are useful to cover a slope.

Statuesque form, attractive flowers and seed heads, and fabulous fall color are some of their most favored attributes. There are many grasses that scoff at our unpredictable Midwestern winters and challenging soil conditions. Some are native; some are not. All offer multi-season beauty.

Prairie dropseed, or Sporobolus heterolepsis, is a native from the prairie. The seeds were used by Native Americans as a food source. This grass forms an upright arching clump of fine textured foliage growing 18 to 24 inches tall. Airy fragrant flower panicles begin blooming in August, rising 2 to 3 feet above the foliage.

Fall brings on a show of gold and flavorful seeds that attract wildlife to the garden. Prairie dropseed performs in sunny, hot areas and is attractive as a specimen plant or massed in groupings as a ground cover.

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is another native from the tall grass prairies. Clumps of blue-green foliage reach an impressive 4 to 6 feet. Pink flower panicles top the foliage in July, and foliage turns yellow in the fall.

Its sturdy form continues through winter adding structure to the winter landscape. Switch grass tolerates many different soil types, including our clay soils, and tolerates both dry and moist soils.

Heavy Metal is one of my favorites. It reaches 4 feet tall and sports metallic blue leaf blades that turn yellow in the fall.

Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis) is a non-native that performs exceptionally well in the Midwest. Wheat-like flowers appear in June and mature to gold as summer progresses. Give feather reed grass a spot in full sun and rich, moist soil for best performance. Overdam is similar to Karl Foerster, but has variegated foliage.

Tufted hairgrass, Deschampsia caespitosa, is a tidy ornamental grass with masses of airy flowers in May that rise 2 to 3 feet above the foliage. Silky green flowers persist through most of the summer maturing to golden yellow. The dark green foliage is semi-evergreen.

Tufted hairgrass grows best in full sun to light shade. It will tolerate moist soil so it can be planted near a pond.

The statuesque giant silver grass (Miscanthus floridus) grows up to 10 feet tall. Its height and thick leaf blades give this ornamental grass a commanding presence in the landscape. Flowers appear late in September above the foliage. This majestic grass is useful as a hedge to block unwanted view or to provide privacy.

The Miscanthus family of grasses, commonly called maidenhair grass, offers other cultivars too -- each as graceful as the next -- as small as Little Bunny and as tall as Gracillimus.

Plant ornamental grasses now so they'll have time for their roots to establish in the soil, and they will reward you with years of low-maintenance appeal in your landscape.

• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040 or visit

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