Quiet winter days may be the time to start considering a few changes to the landscape, whether subtle or dramatic. For instance, notice that neighborhood ornamental grasses are currently a soft beige color with their vertical blades swaying in winter’s often-harsh winds. Unlike turf grass, ornamental — also called bunch grass — introduces a natural feeling with their graceful movement.
For desert landscapes, these native grasses soften the remarkable shapes and textures of accent plants such as cactus, agave, ocotillo and yuccas. Requiring little supplemental water and care, bunch grasses do not spread by underground rhizomes as turf grass does, so are not invasive.
Ornamental grasses are also good for stabilizing a slope after an erosion event. Their fine, wide root network can tenaciously hold the soil.
Established bunch grasses grow in neat mounds, thriving in the same location for years with little care. They maintain their form throughout the year whether growing, blooming, or changing color with the seasons. Taller grasses provide a perfect background and add drama to the landscape.
Mature desert grasses begin growing in spring when nighttime temperatures consistently reach above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. To encourage development of new grass blades, cut back to 4 to 6 inches high in late February. A light application of high nitrogen fertilizer in spring will improve color and size of the plant. All of these grasses do well in containers, the larger the better.
Following are several varieties of ornamental grasses that flourish in this area. All are growing and identified at The Arid Garden, off Camino Encanto in Desert Hills.
Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima) has the finest texture of all ornamental grasses, graceful and sinuously yielding to the smallest breeze. It grows well in part shade, maturing at 2 feet high.
Blue Grama (Boutelous gracilis) is a short grass, 8 to 15 inches high, with lovely tan seed heads in autumn, resembling eyebrows. It is cold hardy down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sideoats Grama (Boutelous curtipendula) is taller at up to 3 feet, and with oat-like blooms uniquely cascading down only one side of the stem.
Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) has gray-green blades with creamy flower spikes. Taking more space, this grass grows to 4 feet high and wide, and is cold hardy to 0 degrees F.
Regal Mist (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is a strong favorite with its wispy pink flowers arriving in autumn. The dense blossoms are dazzling, especially when backlit in early morning or late afternoon. This grass grows to 3 feet high and wide.
Landscape designers recommend that ornamental grasses blend well with the desert’s boulders, unique textures, and prickly plants … contributing their own beauty and animation … with no lawnmower needed!
Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.