Tired of Your Lawn? Animate Your Yard with Ornamental Native Grasses
We included a few of our favorite varieties to get you started.
If you have started to resent your trim lawn—the upkeep, the patchiness, the seeding—consider animating your yard with ornamental native grasses. These species will infuse your outdoor space with color, texture, and magical movement. Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in Austin, Texas, waxes poetic on their best features: "Native grasses give your space distinction, a sense of where you are," says DeLong-Amaya, a superfan of these local flora.
Beautiful and easy to grow, they provide essential habitat for wildlife, including hosting the larvae of native skipper butterflies and providing nesting materials for birds and other animals. "Plus, the more we grow them," she says, "the more we can help eliminate big-bully invasives, like exotic pampas grass." The clumping varieties shown here expand from their base, rather than spreading far and wide via underground rhizomes or stolons; their shapes are also lovely for softening borders and filling out meadows. "A little bit of breeze will start them dancing," DeLong-Amaya says. "They make a garden really come alive."
As for how to grow them? They sprout and mature quickly, so they're easy to sow from seed. Remove any mulch or debris from the ground; then scrape away the top of the soil, scatter the seeds, and cover lightly. For even faster results, you can buy container-grown plants. Dig a hole deep enough that the root crown sits at the base of the soil line. Position the plant, then fill the area around it with water before backfilling to hydrate and eliminate air pockets. Water again, then add mulch. Before you plant, though, light them correctly. "These grasses look spectacular when backlit," DeLong-Amaya says. For an ethereal morning view, place them where the eastern rays will radiate through. For an evening show, plant them to the west so the setting sun sets them aglow. For tidy silhouettes, cut clusters back to the ground in late winter before new growth emerges in spring. Below, see several of fan-favorite varieties to add to your garden.
These wispy green moptops pictured above—also known as Sporobolus heterolepis—can reach three feet in height. When they flower in late summer, they fill the air with a heady scent of coriander and popcorn.
In late summer, Muhlenbergia capillariserupts in a pink plume that beckons you to pet it, says DeLong-Amaya. Instead of cutting this semi-evergreen type in winter, rake out dead foliage.