Everything old is new again
Ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Picta') and Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi) are mentioned in 14th-century herbals. Native feather grass (Stipa pennata) is listed as an ornamental in a 1782 nursery catalogue in Dorset, England. Ornamental grasses brought home by plant hunters in the 19th century were used in Victorian gardens to give them an exotic look. In his classic book The English Flower Garden (1883), William Robinson lists 30 ornamental grasses. The famed British designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) used ornamental grasses frequently and was the first to write about their use in garden designs. We still copy her signature plantings of big grasses and grass relatives.
There's a long tradition of North American plants being discovered by Europeans and eventually coming back into fashion on this side of the Atlantic. By the middle of the 20th century, grasses were being showcased in the nursery gardens of innovative plantsman Karl Foerster, who emphasized their importance in creating all-season gardens. Many of his selections were North American natives. His experiments with natural associations of perennials and grasses that prefer similar growing conditions influenced the next generation of horticulturists and designers, including Wolfgang Oehme, Kurt Bluemel and Ernst Pagels, who found and developed many modern ornamental grass, sedge and rush cultivars.
Easy does it
Most grasses require no maintenance beyond cutting back in early spring. For the taller, tougher grasses, Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of The Well-Tended Garden and a respected garden maintenance expert, recommends tying the clump together and making a quick cut across the base with a chainsaw, electric hedge cutter or bowsaw. The tie neatly holds the stems together for easy removal to the compost area, where further cuts can be made to take stems down to composting or mulching size. Some grasses will eventually need to be dug up and replanted when their central core becomes weak and dies out. If it's a heavy clump, divide it with a sharp spade or axe rather than a shovel.
Very few pests or diseases affect grasses, and most are fairly drought-tolerant. When they flop or look weak and weedy, they're probably getting too much water or fertilizer. Most grasses are thrifty plants, and their caretakers should be, too.
Grass cultivars continue to be collected and introduced from around the world. Two of the many currently on trial are a large Miscanthus with bright gold variegated leaves and red stem sheaths, and a brilliantly blue-foliaged sedge.
Design concepts have also expanded. Tapestry patterns or naturalistic groupings with grasses interspersed through perennial borders or shrub plantings are current ways of using grasses. The noted Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf uses trimmed hedges and shaped shrubs and trees as a foil for airy billows of grasses and perennials-the grasses woven through the perennials as if on a loom. Grasses soften and enhance the modular, angular geometry of modern buildings and work well with popular hot colours and exotic tropicals. There is no end in sight to the variety of grasses becoming available and the imaginative ways to use them.