Inspired by the rippling landscapes of Midwestern prairies, ornamental grass gardens can add an element of wonder and movement to a garden.
With their towering silhouettes, the rustling sounds they make when the wind blows and their ability to complement almost any type of plant or tree, grass gardens add more whimsy than a traditional front lawn.
According to landscape designer Julie Orr, ornamental grass gardens were born out of the "no lawn" movement that sought to replace the regular front lawn with something more sustainable and unexpected in appearance. Ornamental grasses also have an environmental appeal: They require no fertilizer, insecticide or heavy irrigation to keep them vibrant and green. Mixing ornamental grasses with native and flowering plants "creates a sustainable environment that invites bees, birds and insects into your garden," she said.
Orr, who has been designing gardens around the Bay Area for 10 years, said that her passion for ornamental grasses and for incorporating them into her projects comes from their simplicity and boldness.
"I love them because they add a sense of drama. It's such a showstopper to see a house (with ornamental grasses) because the grasses are so sculpted," she said. "The Bouteloua gracilis, for example, catches and reflects light. In the breeze, some of its flowerheads even rattle in the wind."
When it comes to picking ornamental grasses, Orr said that there are two main varieties: evergreen grasses (cool season) and deciduous grasses (warm season). The former grow in fall and winter, bloom in spring and are dormant in the summer; the latter grow in spring, flower in summertime and are dormant during the winter.
Grass gardens require only seasonal pruning.
"Trimming and maintenance is minimal, like deadheading flowers in the spring and summer and raking in the winter," Orr said. "For the cool-season grasses, cut one-third of the plant in the winter time, but only if needed. For warm-season grasses, just cut the brown foliage off in the winter."
Besides easy maintenance, a number of ornamental grasses are also water-wise, helping homeowners cut back on water costs while still maintaining a gracefully styled garden. Varieties like pink muhly and feather reed grasses are drought-resistant and can withstand full sun. Grasses must be rooted and thriving before they become fully drought-resistant, however, Orr said.
"A common misconception with these grasses is that you can go without watering them, but they need to be established before that happens, at least for one to two years," she said. "It's still important to maintain a watering schedule in that time."
For those wanting to incorporate ornamental grasses in their gardens, Orr suggests starting off -- as with any outdoor project -- by considering plants that are acclimated to the compact soils naturally found in most Bay Area backyards. The dense clay makes it difficult for plants to establish roots if they're not naturally suited for it, she said.
On top of that, not all ornamental grasses are created equal, as some grow alongside rivers and streams and require lots of water.
"Look for grasses you'd find in grasslands, oak woodlands or prairies. Those would be the most water-efficient," she said.
Pets also love romping in ornamental grass gardens. Orr said dogs and cats don't actually need a mowed lawn and can get the benefits of playing with and smelling the bunch or ornamental grasses.
"Dogs and cats actually love bunch grasses and love to pounce and play in them," Orr said. "Remember that the bigger your pet is, the taller the grass should be."
The variety of uses and combinations of ornamental grasses with native plants makes the possibilities for landscape design endless for those looking to add a statement piece to their yard. Their versatility, Orr explained, is what makes them so adaptable to any garden: "Ornamental grasses go great with so many plants, from bulbs, rushes and sedges to flowering perennials."
"They're simple but unexpected," Orr added. "People crave that simplicity that (grasses) bring."
This article appeared in print in the Spring Home + Garden Design 2016 publication.