Blades of Glory

Ornamental grass isn't just a fixture at the beach; sweeping blades add a fresh look to traditional gardens and modern landscaping alike.

The graceful sweep of beach grass waving on the dunes has a romance all its own. But ornamental grass can bring its dancing beauty to home gardens as well, adding tufts of texture, color and motion to your personal horticultural tapestry.

Ornamental grass refers to several species of grass known for long leaves and lack of a woody stem, and it provides a heightened palette for today’s garden artists looking to add drama to their landscapes. Even though we may tend to think of “grass” as generically short and green, the range of colors, shapes and sizes of these ornamental grasses—which include the “true” grasses, sedges and rushes—is astonishing. They can add a whole new look to a yard or garden with very little maintenance necessary.

Gardeners can choose from grasses that grow “6 inches tall to 6 inches wide,” says Steve Shumila, retail manager of Briggs Nursery in North Attleboro. “And then there are some that grow to 6 feet tall.”

Even color and design varies: The aptly named feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) sports tufts that look a lot like heads of wheat when autumn rolls in, while little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) turns from bluish green to orange-red with the seasons.

The popular maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) includes yellow-striped zebra grass and the horizontally banded porcupine grass, as well as silver and red varieties that can add unexpected color bursts to a wispy, natural garden or highly cultivated landscaping.

Ornamental grasses offer two prime advantages: height and quick growth. Taller varieties, such as dwarf pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), can give a low-growing garden striking vertical elements, says Cindy Anderson, nursery manager and buyer for Winston Flowers & Garden in Chestnut Hill. Their shifting foliage can even be used to hide an air-conditioning unit or garden hose. “We use them to draw the eye away,” she says.

The key is to use ornamental grass in small batches, like a patch of three stalks behind a low-growing shrub. “They’re a great complement to perennials,” says Catherine Wiersema, owner of Boussard Garden Design in Weston. “They give a more informal look to gardens.” For this reason, ornamental grass looks best set against the clean lines of contemporary architecture or the wilder look of a low-maintenance garden.

In such settings, experts suggest leaving ornamental grass in the ground into the winter months. Some varieties will stand tall even in the snow, providing visual interest and adding the subtle drama of their movement.

But such a wild look may not fit a formal garden. Smaller varieties, however, such as sedges, can complement even a proper English-style garden. You can use them as edgings for walks or as a border around plant beds.

“They also provide food for the birds,” says Wiersema. Even in New England, ornamental grass is a forgiving, pest-resistant plant. For the first year or two, most varieties will need regular watering. But after that, ornamental grass will thrive with very minimal, bi-monthly maintenance.

The main danger to most species of ornamental grass is over-watering. “You don’t want to put them someplace where they’ll get wet feet,” says Maria von Brincken, owner of Maria von Brincken Landscape Garden Design in Sudbury. That means watching out for damp hollows and the edges of driveways, where freshly plowed snow might soak their roots over the winter and through the spring.

“And watch the fertilizing,” says Lynne Flodin, retail and greenhouse manager at Volante Farms in Needham. “Too much fertilizer and they droop.” Most gardeners cut perennial grasses back in late winter, or whenever their stalks start to look battered.

Because ornamental grass can be an easy way to spruce up a landscape, most experts will tell you to watch out for too much thriving. Make sure you plant a “clumping” grass, rather than a “running” one that can spread and take over your garden plot. “Beach grass on the dunes is a running grass,” says Flodin. “If you’re trying for erosion control, that’s perfect. But in a perennial bed, it will be all over the place.”

Better to keep that wild touch in its place, where the shifting stalks will add grace, color and texture nearly year round.