Ornamental grasses are dancing everywhere

Narrow-leaf sunflower shows through a stand of Muhly grass at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Del. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

Mary Metrione can't remember the names of all the ornamental grasses in her Haddonfield garden, but her affection for them makes an unforgettable impression:

"I like their lines. They're taller than most plants that I have, and I just love it when the wind blows - they're all bent over - and I like the ethereal ones that are real fluffy. I like the ones that are heavy with seeds, too. Then they bend differently. I just think they give shape and form and a lot of motion to the garden."

A lot of gardens.

Once a novelty available only to landscape professionals, decorative grasses are everywhere now - in front of banks and gas stations, plunked into so many parking lots, planters, and suburban yards they risk replacing the Knock Out rose and 'Stella de Oro' daylily as the most loved-to-death plant.

But a bored grassaholic is hard to find, probably because there are so many varieties to choose from, in sizes ranging from 6 inches to 15 feet. Provided you pick wisely, they can also address some stubborn problems.

Most are drought-resistant and require little maintenance beyond an annual buzz cut in late winter. According to at least one area gardener who used to have a Big Problem, they also are not a favorite of deer.

"I've been really happy. The deer don't touch them," says Michael Baram, a retired dentist from Yardley who four years ago replaced 120 deer-licious hostas with an assortment of ornamental grasses.

There are lots of other ways to use them in a home garden: as a showy stand-alone; as a ground cover, mini-meadow, or lawn alternative; in beds that line a driveway or soften the perimeter of a patio, pool, pond, or deck. If space is tight, grasses can even thrive in containers.

Steve Cottrell, a chemical engineer from Landenberg, has started dropping grasses into his large wildflower garden. He's also thinking some 2- to 3-foot-tall native grasses might be just the thing to plant around Peace Park Community Garden in North Philly, where he's a volunteer.

"We want to create a meadow that will look appealing for the neighborhood and also help us control weeds," he says.

Cottrell was inspired by horticulturist David Korbonits, who has managed Mt. Cuba Center's meadow in Hockessin, Del., since 1991 and taught an October class on grasses that Cottrell attended.

On a recent visit to the source of both men's delight, we found Mt. Cuba's almost two-acre meadow awash in the low light of fall. Korbonits' grasses shimmered and shivered in the breeze, seed heads rattling.

On close examination, this subtle landscape exhibited surprisingly vivid shades of red, rust, tan, brown, and orange, highlighted with the bold purples, pinks, and yellows of fall asters, obedient plants, and narrow-leaved sunflowers.

Korbonits cannot choose a favorite grass, though when pressed, offers up little bluestem, Muhly grass, prairie dropseed, broomsedge, and tufted hairgrass. And he finds every season enchanting, even winter.

"When it snows, it's really pretty," he says.

Korbonits uses only natives, which is the Mt. Cuba mission. It's also a heartfelt conviction that native grasses provide the best nourishment for the birds, butterflies, voles, snakes, frogs, box turtles, and other wildlife living in and around the meadow.

"But you have to choose your grasses carefully," he says, pointing out that some natives - switchgrass, Indian grass, purple top - can be as aggressive as nonnatives.

"That's where the rub comes in with a lot of people," says landscape architect Carl R. Kelemen of KMS Design Group in Phoenixville.

Some nonnative miscanthus varieties, for example, are extremely popular but also aggressive. "Some people really, really like them and other people wish they could use napalm on every one they ever see," Kelemen says.

Like Korbonits, he uses only natives, especially sea oats, which stabilizes sand dunes, buffalo grass, and big and little bluestem. But Kelemen acknowledges that some nonnatives, Japanese bloodgrass, for example, are both attractive and well-behaved.

Like any other plant, Kelemen says, grasses need to fit the setting.

"They're often sold in a one-gallon pot, which is 6 or 8 inches, and they look cute when they're small. But some are like a Saint Bernard puppy. They never quit growing, so you need to be careful of that."

Brian Burns, horticulture teacher at Camden County Technical Schools, likes his grasses Saint Bernard-sized - if that's what the site requires.

He planted a stand of South American pampas grass, with its huge feathery plumes, in front of the schools' trash bins. In three years, they filled in a space that's 8 feet by 6 feet, topping out at 10 feet tall.

"Some people hate pampas grass. It grows way too big and way too fast. But you don't see the Dumpsters anymore," Burns says.

Big and fast is where Baram, the retired dentist, finds himself four years after ripping out those hosta deer magnets and filling in with grasses - he has had to divide and transplant several times.

"No matter what I do with them, they keep growing. Now my wife complains that they're too big," Baram says.

His response: "Yes, dear."

Grass Knowledge

Here are some resources on ornamental grasses and places to see them.


Native Ferns, Moss and Grasses by William Cullina

The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes by Rick Darke

Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design by Nancy J. Ondra

Gardening With Grasses by Piet Oudolf and Michael King


Missouri Botanical Garden, alturl.com/ubq8e

U.S. National Arboretum, www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/faqs/OrnamentalGrasses.html


Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philadelphia. Fifteen-acre meadow. www.bartramsgarden.org/meadow-trail/

Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope. Five-acre native-plant meadow. www.bhwp.org/explore-bhwp/Our-Meadow.htm

Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. longwoodgardens.org/gardens/trial-garden

Tyler Arboretum in Media. Meadow Maze. www.tylerarboretum.org/

- Virginia A. Smith