A New Twist on Beds and Borders

A New Twist on Beds and Borders

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A New Twist on Beds and Borders

This article is an excerpt from Grasses, by Nancy J. Ondra.

Move over, perennials and annuals; ornamental grasses are now holding court in beds and borders. Recognizing that grasses are far more than space fillers, adventurous gardeners are designing grasses into their borders from the outset, and the results, though sometimes unexpected, are always spectacular.

Simple, yet bold, this border features the upright California rush Juncus patens 'Carman's Gray' in company with Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), an ornamental onion (Allium 'Globemaster'), and veronica (Veronica 'Trehane'). (Garden of Linda Cochran, Bainbridge Island, Wash.)


Artistic considerations aside, there are also excellent practical reasons to consider adding ornamental grasses to your borders.

· Warm-season grasses wait until the weather starts heating up to put on most of their growth, so they're ideal for filling spaces left when spring bulbs and early-flowering perennials go dormant in early- to midsummer.

· Sturdy grasses can help minimize staking chores because they'll mingle with and support weaker-stemmed partners in a way that's as alluring as it is labor-saving.

· Low to medium-height grasses are perfect companions for covering the "bare ankles" of taller-growing perennials that tend to lose their lower leaves as the season progresses -including bee balm (Monarda spp.) and border phlox (Phlox paniculata), to name just two.

Ornamental grasses come in a wide range of heights, so there's a perfect choice for any spot from the front edge to the very back of the border. Another obvious consideration for garden design is color, and here you can use grasses to your advantage in several ways. If you need a dependable, even-toned foil behind more airy flowering plants, dense clumps of green-leaved grasses make a handsome backdrop for pale or wispy blooms, such as airy white gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), pale yellow scabious (Scabiosa ochroleuca), and steel-blue globe thistles (Echinops ritro), which can easily get lost against a less distinct background. Green grasses also work well for separating strong colors and boldly patterned blooms, such as the intense red heads of Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) and the bull's-eye stripes of blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora). Grass foliage makes its own color contribution to the border, and it's hard not to be tempted by the surprising variety of foliage color choices, from yellow, red, and orange, to brown, blue, or even multihued. Gold, silver, copper, or bronze flower clusters and seed heads, when caught by light, cast an almost metallic sheen over the entire garden setting.

Beyond color, grasses have other assets to offer beds and borders -- most notably, form and texture. A fair number of traditional border denizens possess distinct upright or mounded forms, making the arching habits of many grasses a welcome transition between the two. And when you consider the dramatic contrast of fine textured grasses against the bold foliage of hostas, heucheras, and cannas -- to name just a few broad-leaved border favorites -- it's easy to see that possibilities for outstanding combinations abound.

A subtler benefit comes from a less tangible quality of most grasses, and it may be the best of all the contributions grasses make to a bed or border: they add a softer, more natural feel to even the most precisely planned plantings, evoking the free-for-all charm of a flower-studded meadow while maintaining the tidiness and balance of a carefully cultivated border.

As they mature, ornamental grasses provide exciting changes throughout the summer months just when most borders shine, but they're interesting at unexpected times, too. The fall foliage colors of warm-season grasses, for instance, can rival some of the showiest deciduous shrubs and trees. Their winter colors are more muted, but the russets, golds, and tans are still welcome, as are the persistent seed heads that transform snow and ice into ever-changing winter sculptures. Cool-season grasses, too, shine during the colder months, bridging the gap between the last of the fall-flowering perennials and the earliest spring bulbs.


Green-and-white-striped gardener's garters (Phalaris arundinacea 'Picta') and bluegreen Lyme grass (Leymus arenaflus) are undeniably enticing when controlled at the nursery. But bring these beauties home and release them in your borders, and you'll be sorry! The adage is all too true: "The first year, they sleep; the second year, they creep; and the third year, they leap."

To enjoy these spreaders without worry, plant them in pots or bottomless buckets, then sink the containers almost to their rim in your bed or border. Leave about 1 inch of pot rim above the soil surface to help discourage the runners from climbing out over the top. This approach isn't foolproof, so it's wise to check for escapees on a regular basis. When the pot gets crowded, simply divide the plants, replant just one small piece per pot, and you're in business again.

When choosing grasses for beds and borders, keep in mind their relative tendencies to creep or self-sow. There are some truly beautiful creeping grasses, but unless you're prepared to contain them at planting time, you may rue the day you ever let them loose in your border.

Clump-formers and slow spreaders are less likely to crowd out bed and border companions, but some multiply almost as rapidly because they are overly generous with their seed production, leaving you with a dilemma: do you cut off the seed heads in fall and lose their winter show, or let them stand and deal with weeding out the unwanted seedlings the following year? In established beds and borders, you can probably get away with the latter approach because there's not much bare soil for the seeds to drop into, and adding a fresh layer of mulch each spring can keep volunteers to a minimum. But in a newer landscape with lots of exposed soil, removing the seed heads in fall might be a better option.

Most ornamental grasses adapt readily to the same growing conditions that typical border plants appreciate: full sun to light shade, and well-drained soil that doesn't dry out completely. Nutrient needs, however, differ. While traditional wisdom calls for frequent applications of fertilizer to keep border perennials blooming, overly fertile soil can lead to too-lush, floppy growth in grasses. For new gardens, rather than enriching the soil in the whole bed before planting, one way to address the problem is to add soil amendments to the individual holes where you plant perennials but no fertilizer where you plant grasses. During the subsequent growing seasons, you might consider using a compost mulch in spring, with fewer or lighter feedings in summer, or no additional fertilizer at all. Of course, you could also fertilize the perennials as usual and simply stake your grasses, or shear them back in early summer to promote more compact regrowth; it all depends on how much additional work you want to do.

An Elegant Border --->

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