Ornamental Grasses

Mexican feather grass (Nassella/Stipa tenuissima)

Mexican feather grass (Nassella/Stipa tenuissima)

Nassella tenuissima (Na-SELL-a ten-yu-ISS-i-ma). If there ever was a plant whose description matched the sound of its name, Nassella tenuissima would be it. All those esses suggest a soft and sighing breeze.
Nassella tenuissima is a wavy and graceful member of the grass family. It serves as a tallish ground cover, especially in narrow, stand-alone planters, in full to partial sun. The slightest zephyr makes it quiver, creating an undulating, S-shaped movement through the garden, an appropriate complement to trees rustling overhead.
Nassella (Stipa) tenuissima is variously known as Mexican feather grass, fine stem tussock grass, Texas needle grass, pony tails, and angel’s hair.
Its plethora of common names is an indication of the fond esteem in which it is held among a growing number of plant enthusiasts.
It is native to Mexico, Texas and New Mexico but has been exported to the four corners of the earth. It grows best in full sun to light shade and develops as dense fountain-like masses of ultrathin green threads woven together.
Its silver to gold inflorescences, depending on the sunlight and vantage point of the observer, are visible from June until September. In the fall, the plant turns to the color of straw.
Although it will never serve the same purpose as a lawn, and you cannot play a game of croquet on it, Mexican feather grass is definitely a low-maintenance lawn alternative. Since it continually self sows, you do not have to worry about it dying out or losing its vitality over time, as is the case with many ornamental grasses. You can also control its color, to a certain extent, cutting it back when it becomes too tawny for your taste. New growth is always green.
As is the case of many other ornamental grasses, Nassella tenuissima may be minimally or regularly watered. The more you water, the faster it grows, but it can subsist on very little water once established. It is critical, in any case, that the soil be allowed to dry out thoroughly between waterings. Poorly drained soil or over watering will surely result in fungus problems. Crown rot, which occurs when water settles around the base of a clumping, dry climate grass, is usually lethal.
Mexican feather grass grows to about 2 feet in height. It provides a wonderful contrast to bronze or dark purple New Zealand flax cultivars such as ‘Plum Delight’. In the manner of ornamental grasses in general, it may be drastically cut back in late winter just prior to the resumption of growth in the spring.
Alternatively, at least with this plant and its needle thin foliage, a vigorous raking may be sufficient to remove dead growth. Mexican feather grass is recommended for erosion control on slopes because of its modest water requirement and its ability to self sow.
With water rationing apparently here to stay, Nassella tenuissima is only one of many ornamental grasses, requiring no more than once or twice a week irrigation, that have been popping up in gardens and landscapes in our area.
A popular design concept sets off burgundy fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) against blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), blue rye grass (Leymus arenarius ‘Glaucus’) or blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea).
Variegated grasses are also popular, with gold and silver banded pampas grasses (Cortaderia selloana ‘Gold Band’ and ‘Silver Comet’), white- and yellow-striped zebra grasses (Miscanthus varieties), and variegated reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’) leading the way.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is used in Asian cooking and will grow its best in a garden of partial shade. Sugar cane (Saccharinum officinarum), which grows quite easily in the Valley, is another edible member of the grass family. Its almost woody canes provide a sweet snack to chew on throughout the summer months.
Q. Our neighbors have provided for us a new attractive wood fence that is more like a wall. No breezes will come through. We want to plant along the fence, some natives that will have some color and some that might reach about 5 feet high. Sun only comes in the middle of the day. We also wanted to know if you have any recommendations for shade other than California lilac (Ceanothus), which does well for us growing under oak and sycamore trees in decomposed granite.
– Bette and Don Simons, Sherman Oaks
A. Mahonia nevinii is a carefree shrub that could easily be trained into a 5-foot-tall hedge. It has small, silver gray, prickly leaves, yellow flowers, and plentiful red berries. Other possibilities include the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), called fried egg plant on account of its white flowers with yellow centers, and big berry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca), with blue foliage and cinnamon bark. Many native sages (Salvias), most with blue or purple flowers, could be considered for covering your fence. The most colorful California native, in my opinion, is fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum), and it would do well with the few hours of midday sun that you mention. Native penstemons will provide long-lasting pink, red, or purple flowers that resemble small trumpets. For colorful planting under oaks, Pacific Coast irises are your best bet. They bloom in purple, blue, pink, salmon or white with yellow markings.
Tip of the week
Grasses may be used in wide borders around a more water needy lawn or flower bed. You do not have to give up your favorite garden features to accommodate ornamental grasses.
If you have dry spots in your garden that the sprinklers barely seem to reach, you might consider planting ornamental grasses in those areas. A large selection of ornamental grasses are available at Greenlee Nursery (greenleenursery.com) in Chino.
Many of these grasses may also be special ordered through your neighborhood nursery.

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