Steele: Ornamental grasses a low-maintenance alternative to lawn

One of the easiest plant groups to maintain, they simply need to be cut back in the spring.

Red Riding Hood tulips and grape hyacinth blooming amidst newly emerging grass clumps in the Ornamental Grass Garden at the unH20 Xeriscape Garden.

Many ornamental grasses are suited to our climate. One of the easiest plant groups to maintain, they simply need to be cut back to about four inches above ground in the spring before growth resumes. No other maintenance is needed.They are deer-proof and are generally pest and disease free.

Grass species fall into two categories. Cool season grasses begin growing in early spring and bloom in June. Warm season grasses remain dormant until April and bloom in fall.

There are two types of grasses. Clump-formers are well behaved, gradually increasing in circumference. Spreaders increase rapidly by runners. They may be good for erosion control but are invasive in a garden with other plants.An excellent online resource, for photos and details about grasses hardy to the Okanagan, is

A beautiful, simple landscape can be created with just one variety of ornamental grass. However, by choosing at least one species each, from the cool and warm season grasses, the grass presence during the growing season will be expanded.

Adding spring bulbs will provide colour in early spring after the grasses have been cut down. The dying bulb foliage will be hidden as the grasses re-grow.

Spring bulbs are available in nurseries in the fall. All varieties of narcissus and grape hyacinth are deer-proof. Tulips are deer candy. Bulbs that naturalize are the best choice for grass gardens as they are hardy and multiply readily.

A tall ornamental grass garden could include Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather reed grass) as the early blooming grass and a variety of switch grass (Panicum) for fall bloom.

Another fall blooming option is Miscanthus varieties, most of which have spectacular plumes of bloom/seedheads that stand up well through winter.

To add colour and attract pollinators and butterflies to the garden, mass plantings of an easy care, long-blooming perennial may be added. Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ (gold with brown centres) is an excellent choice. The seed heads look great through winter and provide bird food.

Aster frikartii (blue with yellow centres) blooms from July to frost without dead-heading.

These perennials and grasses need some irrigation during hot dry weather. Drip irrigation to each plant conserves water and reduces weed growth because surrounding ground remains dry.

Two short grass prairie natives, Bouteloua gracilis (blue grama grass) and Sporobolus heterolepsis (prairie dropseed) are very drought tolerant clump formers that can be used in garden beds but also look beautiful in mass plantings and meadow-like situations. They form 15-inch high, fine, green foliage clumps.

Bouteloua may be mowed to create a lawn.

Two excellent reference books are ‘Gardening with Grasses by Michael King and Piet Oudolf and ‘The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes’ by Rick Darke.

To learn more about gardening in the Okanagan I invite you to attend my ‘Introduction to Xeriscape’ class this spring. Check for dates and details.


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