Grasses galore

There are both aesthetic and ecological uses for towering natives, meadow-like groundcovers and more in the landscape.

Photo courtesy of North Creek Nurseries

Nothing says erosion problem faster than a bare slope, but instead of going with turf, native and ornamental grasses are becoming a popular option.

Plant breeder and introducer Brent Horvath, president of Illinois-based Intrinsic Perennial Gardens, underscores a design shift. “Mass plantings of grasses are still big, but mixed plantings with perennials … are becoming quite popular. People see the grasses in these big public gardens and want to mimic that.”

Attention-getting grasses in prominent public plantings may send customers your way. Chicago’s Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, atop underground parking garages, and the High Line park on an abandoned Manhattan freight rail line feature grasses in leading roles.

California-based grass expert, author and designer John Greenlee of Greenlee and Associates credits these public plantings with gains in grass popularity nationwide. “It’s never been a more exciting time, and it has a lot to do with the success of the High Line in New York and Millennium Park in Chicago. People are finally getting to see these plants in ways they need to be used,” he says.

But you have to make sure you understand what’s regionally appropriate in terms of grasses and sedges, not only for client satisfaction, but for ecological purposes as well. Steve Castorani, president of Pennsylvania-based North Creek Nurseries, recommends using appropriate plants to create ecologically sound landscapes that can live up to customer expectations.

Stay eco-friendly.

Greenlee stresses that regionalism is extremely important. “We’re still on a learning curve with people understanding that it’s not just cold temperatures that determine where a plant does well, but also its tolerance to heat,” he says. He encourages doing research and not forcing plants into regions where they don’t belong.

Interest in native plants, pollinators and environmentally responsible landscaping are enhancing grass appeal. “It’s time for these things to be acknowledged,” Greenlee says. “Gardening can’t be just decorating the planet; it’s also about restoration and ecology. Grasses continue to play a very important role in moving American gardens from pure ornament to ornament and rehabilitation.”

Castorani describes numerous benefits grasses and sedges provide for wildlife, insects and humans in traditional and nontraditional landscapes. Deep-rooted native bunch grasses, such as Panicum, Andropogon, Schizachyrium, Sorghastrum nutans and Sporobolis heterolepsis excel at preventing erosion and promoting water infiltration. Entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy reports that sedges promote pollinator activity as well.

Greenlee also points to ornamental advances with native prairie grasses, Horvath’s primary interest in grasses. By focusing on improved ornamental characteristics, such as fall foliage color or showier flowers, these native cultivars may usher in greater acceptance and broaden uses of grasses both beautiful and beneficial. Designers and grass enthusiasts are embracing options beyond gardens and prairie-like plantings.

“The big growth market in grasses across America has been the groundcover grasses – meadows and lawn substitutes,” Greenlee says. “Groundcover grasses work as fillers and do what a lawn does. They’re a place for the eye to rest.”

This meadow revolution is gaining acceptance from coast to coast.

Castorani sees meadow-like plantings gaining popularity. “Even in smaller applications where grasses are mixed with forbs and perennials, grasses are the element that pulls the other pieces together,” he explains. Castorani points to Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) for an adaptable lawn alternative, even in dry shade.

The author is a freelance writer and former hort professional.

April 2018
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