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The Most Natural Companion
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The Most Natural Companion



Images of waterways almost anywhere in the world are filled with gentle sweeps of free-flowing grasses swaying in the breezes or simply lazing by the water’s edge.

From a watershaper’s perspective, these grasses are arguably the most versatile of all plant materials. In one form or another, they exist and thrive in almost every environment in the world. They can be used by themselves to lend a natural feeling to a stream or pond, next to a contemporary watershape to make a bold statement or nestled among almost any other plants in any landscape style to soften and add texture.

One of the best things about grasses (particularly the taller ones) is how gracefully they wave in the wind, adding an element of movement to any design that no other plant can emulate.

Grasses come in many forms, from dwarf ornamentals and turf to tall clumps of statuesque reeds that can reach more than 50 feet high in the case of bamboo. They also encompass some of our most important cash crops: Corn, wheat and rice are all grasses, for example, and bamboo is used in many parts of the world for shelter and various household items. Furniture, fences and even cosmetics are produced from grasses.


For our purposes as watershapers, it makes sense to focus on the ornamental types and get to know how to use these plants to enhance our work.

Grasses thrive in all climate zones. In colder areas, their autumn colors brighten and enliven otherwise dreary environments. Some defy nature’s cycle by producing vibrant fall colors and standing strong against cold winterscapes. In fact, they’re often the only vestiges of spring and summer peering through blankets of white in barren winter settings.

Few would argue that grasses don’t belong next to a naturalistic pond or stream. In almost every natural environment, you’ll find some type of grass growing next to or out of a waterway. In fact, many varieties thrive in water or swampy environments.

The most natural-looking watershapes I have created all place grasses at the water’s edge as a means of blurring and blending the transition between land and water. Creating that smooth transition is the essential element for “manufacturing” a watershape that looks natural.

What if you don’t want your design to look natural? Take, for example, an ultra-contemporary rectangular pool surrounded by concrete, tall vertical walls, large flat planes, and little landscaping.

In this setting, sod or dwarf ornamental grasses can be used to maintain the planar appearance, while taller grasses can be used as specimens. In essence, grasses can be used here as artwork and sculptural forms. Choosing a tall grass with interesting foliage or blooms against an otherwise stark setting definitely makes a statement.

But most people tend toward something in-between. Ultra-contemporary designs are often too sterile for them, while the natural waterway is too difficult to maintain or doesn’t fit their overall design. Adding grasses into any style – contemporary, formal, Asian, drought-tolerant or cottage, just to name a few – is quite simple.


Unless you have selected a particular grass as a specimen plant, it’s important to blend the grasses with the other design elements and plant palette you are using. This brings us to basic issues of color, height, form and texture as well as some seasonal issues:

* Color: Particularly with grasses, you need to weigh changing seasonal colors and whether they will clash with or enhance the rest of the landscape throughout the year.

* Height: While some grasses survive the winter, others need to be cut to the ground, thus leaving barren expanses if you’ve planted them en masse. This may or may not be desirable.

* Form: Though typically upright, grasses vary in form, with some arching or slightly spreading in appearance. From a design standpoint, this means that taller grasses can be used to draw the focus up, while turf and massed dwarf varieties will bring the eye forward and expand the visual space.

* Texture: A coarse-textured landscape, such as a tropical environment, may need grasses to break up and soften the design. They can be used, for example, to hide trunks or taller plants that have unattractive bases – or placed in the foreground to create transitions from plants to hardscape.

In a design where medium-textured plants are the primary mainstay, grasses can be used to break up an otherwise smooth plane. Their upright forms draw the eye away from the horizontal lines defined by the other plants and can be placed to direct the eye to other features of the design.

When using mostly fine-textured plants, such as ferns and smaller-leafed ground covers, a wider-stalked or contrasting form of grass can break up the overall flatness of the setting. In this case, the grass might even become a focal point.

Whatever grasses you choose, it’s important to think of them as a way to direct viewers through a landscape. Their straighter lines have the ability to guide attention, so they’re a great tool for imposing order on your design and pointing visitors where you want them to go.


Deciding which grasses to use should follow the same basic principals we’ve used before, with a few specific caveats:

[ ] Climate: Choose grasses that are right for your climate. Check with a local nursery to see which types grow well in your particular zone, and be aware that even if one type of grass might grow well anywhere in the country, it will most likely behave differently in different climates. It might, for example, maintain its color, size, and form in California, while it might change color, dry up and go dormant in Maine. Be sure to consult a local plant guide for accurate information specific to the zone in which you’re planting.

[ ] Growth habits: You need to know whether the grass you’re considering is clumping or trailing. Trailing varieties need root barriers to stay within defined limits but are great at covering large expanses. Clumping grasses will typically stay in check unless they also drop seeds.

[ ] Reproduction: You need to determine whether the grass is self-seeding or not. Many varieties drop seeds freely. You may not recognize this happening until it’s too late and you have hundreds of the single plant you selected. With a meadow or larger area, this might not be a problem; within a defined design area, however, it’s best to choose varieties that do not self-seed and can be controlled more easily. Ask your nursery: Some grasses are available in both self-seeding and sterile varieties.

[ ] Maintenance: Choose grasses that fit your clients’ maintenance requirements. Some require cutting back in winter, for example, while others display much of their beauty in their dormant-season form. Cutting grasses back may also simply be a matter of taste, as some people like the look of a dry landscape during the winter. As always, consult plant directories carefully before making specific selections.

Next time, I’ll pass along some suggestions about grasses to consider for your watershape designs. If you’re planning on suggesting grasses to your clients for planting in 2002, this information will reach you just in time. In most parts of the country the best plants come out from early April until the end of May. Be prepared!

And by the way, don’t be fooled. Some of the biggest varieties of grasses are sold in one-gallon containers but grow to very large proportions. Be sure you know the mature size of the plant before you put it in the ground.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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