My main source of grass-related
inspiration has been a book by Nancy Ondra called Grasses: Versatile
Partners for Uncommon Garden Design. The book is aimed at people who want
to work grasses into a naturalistic perennial garden, so there are plenty of
creative ideas for pairing grasses with lavender, salvia, sedum, aster, and
even roses and lilies.
Grasses provide a wonderful source
of seed for birds in fall and winter, and they’re a useful addition to the
garden as a kind of filler plant to add color and shape when nothing else is
blooming. While some grasses are
drought-tolerant, others, especially the reeds, thrive in wet, marshy areas. Be
sure to choose a grass that can handle the conditions in your garden, and remember
that even plants that can survive dry summers will still need supplemental
water for the first year or two while they get going. After that, you can
actually use water to control the growth of the grass—if you want it to be
shorter and tougher, hold back the water, but if you want something with more
height and lushness, try watering more.
Grasses will typically require less
maintenance than the rest of your plants do. Some benefit from a haircut in the
winter, but many only need the dead foliage raked out from time to time.
Clump-forming grasses should be divided every few years to keep the oldest
growth in the center from dying out, and some grasses are so vigorous that you
may want to cut out sections just to keep them down to a manageable size.
And of course, Californians are
lucky to have so many native grasses to choose from. I’m very fond of blue gramma grass (Bouteleoua gracilis)
with its lovely, airy seedheads, and the vigorous deergrass (Muhlenbergia
rigens), which looks great in a long border with other drought-tolerant
plants like yarrow and agastache. Start
with natives and work your way around to a few cultivated varieties if you need
to round out your collection, but be absolutely sure that you don’t bring home
an invasive exotic. Your local native
plant society is the best source for information about non-native grasses that
can wreak havoc with fragile ecosystems.