In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
August, 2008
Regional Report

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Unusual fringed seedheads of blue grama resemble eyelashes.

Glorious Grasses

Ornamental clumping grasses add movement, texture, form, and color to the landscape. Savvy gardeners use them to picturesque effect, although grasses don't seem to be as commonly planted in the Phoenix area as their many atttributes warrant. On a recent trip to Prescott, Arizona, I was delighted to see quite a few high-desert landscapes enhanced with beautiful grasses.

Using Native Grasses in the Landscape
Ornamental grasses show off best when planted where low rays of early morning or late afternoon sun shine through their flowing stalks and plume heads to create a shimmering effect. The billowing pink plumes of Muhlenbergia capillaris 'Regal Mist' or feathery golden stalks of Mexican thread grass (Stipa tenuissima ) show off to maximum effect when backlit by the sun.

Plant in masses around a boulder or two, or allow a line of grasses to spill over a sidewalk to soften hard edges. Try mixing a few in your wildflower garden for a meadow effect. Bunching grasses well suited to a wildflower planting include blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Blue grama's fringe-like seedheads hang on the stalk resembling eyelashes. Birds cling to the more upright seedheads of sideoats, plucking them clean. (Caveat: these two gramas are considered allergenic.)

Maintenance
Native and well-adapted ornamental grasses use little water and are easy to maintain. Simply cut them back as close to the ground as possible every one to three years to rejuvenate them. Perform this task in late winter (January-February in the low desert; late March at higher elevations). I don't recommend cutting them back in fall after they flower and go to seed for two reasons. First, there's nothing left to look at but short brown stubs for months. Instead, wait to prune, and you'll be rewarded with fresh, green growth. Second, the seed stalks attract a bevy of native birds. Also, butterflies and other beneficial insects lay eggs on the grass stalks. If you cut them back, you're eliminating next year's population.


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