The 1996 Summer Olympics not only put Georgia before the eyes of the nation. It also put ornamental grasses into Georgia landscapes.
"Before the Olympics, people were leery of using grasses in their landscapes," said Will Corley, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"But during the Olympics, everyone saw how well they performed when we used them in the flowering Olympic rings and color spot designs," Corley said. "Afterwards, they decided to give them a try at home."
Corley said most garden centers now carry ornamental grasses. "The Europeans have used these grasses for years," he said, "but Americans are just beginning to use them. Before the Olympics, many Americans thought of ornamental grasses as weeds."
Now that the attitudes have changed, ornamental grasses are catching on in the United States. "They're known best for their low-maintenance qualities," Corley said. "They require very little water and fertilizer and no pesticides."
Ornamental grasses work well in new American or informal garden landscapes, he said. "These landscape schemes support using grasses for color, texture, movement and sound," he said. "These gardens incorporate ornamental grasses because they're both practical and appealing."
Another plus for using these grasses is that most are perennials and thrive in full sun.
"Ornamental grasses should be planted in raised beds because they prefer well-drained soil," Corley said. "Once established, just cut them back at winter's end and lightly fertilize in the spring and late summer."
Many home landscapers are leery of cutting back their ornamental grasses. They don't want to harm the plants. But they needn't fear.
"If you cut them back to 6 inches above the ground, they will perform much better and look much better when the growth returns," Corley said. "Trust me. Be brutal, and your plants will reap the benefits."
For home gardeners who'd like to give ornamental grasses a try this fall, Corley suggests beginning with dwarf pampas grass.
"It grows to 6 feet high and has many silver plumes," Corley said. "If you want a taller plant to use as a focal point, try pampas grass. It grows up to 10 feet high and is the queen of grasses for specimen effect."
Corley also recommends maiden grass, porcupine grass, dwarf fountain grass and purple dwarf fountain grass.
Maiden grass, an upright, arching plant, grows 5 to 6 feet high and has dark green, fine-textured foliage. Rosy plumes develop in late summer and mature to silver through the winter.
Porcupine grass is an erect form of zebra grass. The leaves have golden horizontal bands, and the plant produces deep straw-colored flowers from September through winter.
Dwarf fountain grass is often confused with annual fountain grass. Its plumes appear in midsummer and fade from rose-brown to a deep straw color. Smaller cultivars may require extra water and fertilizer to perform well.
Purple dwarf fountain grass differs from the dwarf variety by having a coarser leaf texture and larger, chocolate-purple plumes which fade to light brown.
Crimson Fountain Grass
Sharon Omahen, UGA CAES ECT
One of the most popular ornamental grasses is crimson fountain grass. It grows to just 3 feet high with a 4-foot spread. The foliage is burgundy, as are the small clusters of flowers or panicles.
"The downside to this variety is that it's an annual and doesn't reseed," Corley said. "It's a nurseryman's dream, as you'll have to buy it again each year if you want to include it in your landscape."
No matter which variety you choose, Corley said, ornamental grasses are sure to add a new look to your home landscape with little effort on your part.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)