Ornamental grasses are now common sights at nurseries and garden centers, but that hasn’t always been the case. One of the earliest advocates of incorporating native and ornamental grasses and grass-like plants into American gardens was horticulturist and landscape designer John Greenlee — a well-known and respected expert in grass ecology known as the “Grassman” or “Grass Guru,” among other monikers — and he’s my guest on the podcast this week.
John has a degree in ornamental horticulture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (a.k.a. Cal Poly Pomona) and he is the author of two books, “The American Meadow Garden” and “The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses.” Some of his biggest projects are the Getty Museum and the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles and the savannas at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. He’s also contributed to The Gardens of Appeltern, the largest garden ideas park in the Netherlands.
John shares his knowledge by delivering presentations and lectures on the use of natural lawns, native grasses, and meadow restoration. He says landscaping should be about more than just decorating: The best landscaping creates ecosystems.
How John Greenlee Became the Grassman
John says that when he was in his first year of college in 1975, there were just two ornamental grasses in the West Coast nursery industry, pampas grass and blue fescue. Jumping forward to the early ’80s, he and a partner had a design-build landscape construction firm, and perennial grasses were starting to catch on in the United States, as English gardens and perennial gardens were all the rage.
John’s first perennial garden project was in San Marino, California, at a modern house just around the corner from the Huntington Botanical Gardens. The house was set among native oak trees, so his partner proposed creating a garden that would simulate what the Los Angeles basin was like 300 years earlier: oak savanna.
To create the forested grassland, John turned to a specialty perennial nursery in Northern California where he first saw ornamental grasses. The nursery had belonged to the late plantsman Marshall Olbrich, who directed John to Kurt Bluemel’s nursery in Maryland that specializes in ornamental grasses, and the client agreed to send John there.
John recalls standing in Kurt’s field among 250 varieties of ornamental grasses, the likes of which he had never seen, and feeling blown away.
John’s visit to Kurt’s nursery led to the first refrigerated tractor-trailer load of grasses crossing the country from Maryland to California. Things almost went sideways when agriculture officials stopped the truck in the desert at the Colorado River in 105° heat. Despite a number of the grasses not being on their list of approved imports, the officials let the truck into the state — and the landscape installation was a success.
Following a trip to Brazil — during which John met renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx — John stayed with Kurt, who offered him a job. His immersion into the world of ornamental grasses began there. He entered the gardening lecture circuit and says he became an expert “by default.”
On his travels, John learned of even more grasses in nature that were not offered by the nursery industry, and he eventually opened the first ornamental grasses nursery on the West Coast. He amassed a collection of native and ornamental grasses that, at the time, surpassed even botanical institutions.
Cool Season & Warm Season
Grasses have two basic categories: cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses.
Cool-season grasses, just as the name implies, grow when it’s cool,” John explains. While they are essentially evergreen, their most active growth happens in cool weather.
A caveat, John points out, is that in the prairies of California, cool-season grasses are only green when the rain falls in the winter. Then they become summer dormant, crispy and flammable. Because of the fire danger, many native California grasses are not suitable for California gardens. Instead, West Coast landscape designers look for grasses that will give the most green for the least amount of water.
Warm-season grasses prefer the heat and go dormant in the winter. Though they turn brown in the cold, they don’t die.
Clumping vs. Creeping
Another way to break down grasses is between clumping varieties and creeping varieties.
Creeping grass is grass you can step on and, typically, mow. It creates a colony and spreads. Think turfgrasses.
Clumping grass stays in a tight clump and is typically cut down just once a year, rather than mowed frequently. Also known as bunchgrasses, clumping grasses are typically ornamentals.
More Grass Considerations
There are between 300 and 400 varieties of grass that are sold through nurseries, and each has different traits.
There are a number of questions to ask before picking a grass for your landscape:
- Does it prefer sun or shade?
- Is it suited to sandy soil or clay?
- Will it tolerate tree root competition?
- Can it tolerate flooding?
- Can it tolerate salt spray?
Ornamental Grasses Will Succeed in the Right Region
Ornamental grasses that don’t last long after they were planted likely don’t belong in that part of the world, John says.
Some grasses can be successful with enough supplemental watering and do well over an impressive range — but still fail in the desert. Likewise, West Coast grasses planted in the Southeast are not suited to the conditions.
Not every ornamental grass that’s available at a local nursery is meant for the region — even if it’s labeled a perennial. A perennial grass outside of its ideal growing conditions should be treated like an annual: Expect that it will only last a year or two before it needs to be replaced.
Better Living — Without Chemistry
John has seen many changes in the horticultural industry since he was in college. Ornamental horticulture education had been about “better living through chemistry,” he says. It was about finding methods for growing plants outside of their natural habitats, liking adding water or using fungicides. But lately, ornamental horticulture and ecology have come together.
The new generation of landscape designers are not just decorating the planet, they’re fixing the mess that’s been made of the planet, he says.
Grasses are now being used in bioswales to filter stormwater runoff and recharge groundwater. Cookie-cutter lawns that once needed lawnmowers, leaf blowers and edgers — causing noise and hydrocarbon pollution — can be transformed to include native sedges that will thrive with little care.
John credited Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf with changing the minds of landscape designers and the public about what’s possible with grasses and other perennials. Piet designed the High Line linear park in New York City that opened in 2009, and he is a leading figure of the “New Perennial” movement.
Ecologically Sound Alternatives to Turf Grass
John acknowledges that there will always be a need for turfgrasses — like for athletic fields — but says the vast majority of lawns are bad for the planet. However, there are alternatives that are ecologically sound.
The best grass ecologies bring in birds, bees and butterflies. The most basic design would be a sea of green with the occasional flowers from flowering grasses. The most sophisticated design would be meadow-like with 30 different plant species and one or two that are “firing off” at any given time to create visual interest, John says.
Homeowners associations are coming around to the fact that if they don’t want to listen to mowers, blowers and edgers — and perhaps want to listen to songbirds instead — they should allow homeowners to have less turfgrass.
The Romance of Grasses
Grasses are basically translucent, allowing a little light to pass between the blades. In the early-morning light and late-afternoon light, grasses glow and react to light in a way that very few other plants do, John says.
Grass seed heads provide even more interest as they capture the wind, adding movement and animating the garden in a way that very few plants do.
John calls these traits “the romance of grasses.” For more on how to create this effect, John recommends the book “The Moonlit Garden” from garden designers Lauren and Scott Ogden. He says that all of the gardens he creates now are designed for full moon viewing.
Lawns of Grain
While the term “food lawn” has become popular, it usually refers to growing tomatoes. But what about grain?
Wheat, oat and rye are all types of cereal grains, but they are also grasses. John has designed some edible grain meadows with Doug Mosel, founder of the Mendocino Grain Project in California. John calls Doug the keeper and guru of heirloom grains, like the rice grown in South Carolina plantations in the 1700s and the barley that Sam Adam used to brew his beer.
John designed sweeps of edible grain for ornamental purposes. He asks, why have a turf lawn when you could have a little green garden to brew your own beer or make your own muffins?
Meadows as an Excuse to Plant Bulbs
To John, all meadows are really an excuse to plant bulbs. He notes that many bulbs have grass-like foliage. That foliage provides an interesting visual effect — and then, boom, there are four or six weeks of flowers, and butterflies floating over the garden.
Because a meadow-like lawn is only mowed maybe four times a year, the bulb foliage can then be mowed down after the flowers are done.
John says a lawn can become an amazing bulb panel, with bulbs blooming at different times of the year in a very sophisticated fashion.
Bad Grass Management
John says there is a place for annuals in the garden, and using perennial grasses as annuals is no problem at all.
What does become a problem is when a nursery markets a grass as being low-maintenance and perennial, but is selling the grass out of its region. When that’s the case, the grass won’t last more than a year or two — and that will disappoint gardeners who didn’t get what they were expecting.
What John finds really shocking is when large commercial installations or plantings in roadway medians use the wrong types of grasses. Plantings that were supposed to be maintenance-free will need lots of care to survive or will require frequent replacement.
Bad grass management also arises when gardeners and landscapers don’t know when and how to cut ornamental grasses. Different types of ornamental grasses should be cut back to varying degrees and at different times of the year.
That’s why it’s important to know what type of grass you’re purchasing and what its needs are. If the nursery staff can’t give those answers, then it may not be the right place to buy ornamental grasses.
John’s attitude toward using non-native grasses is: If you’re not from here, you better play well with others. You should not have the ability to impact native ecosystems.
If a non-native grass passes that test and will grow well in its new home, he has no objections to using it in a landscape.
“New” Grasses Emerging
When John worked on Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2000, the Florida nursery trade had just four ornamental and native grasses in circulation. Today, there are 150 grasses in the Florida trade. More and more grasses are becoming commercially available in different parts of the county every year.
John completed a garden this past week using a new-to-market Bella bluegrass with an unknown botanical history. It was discovered in an abandoned test plot at the University of Nebraska and has the distinction of growing only 2 inches tall.
Another new grass, which has been vetted and tested by Denver Botanic Gardens, is a type of Bermuda grass — a grass that typically has a well-deserved bad rap. John says the new grass is from the Transvaal region of South Africa and is likely a parent species of the “wicked weed” hybrid Bermudas developed in Tifton, Georgia. It’s being marketed as Dog Tuff because it only grows a few inches tall and is resistant to yellowing from dog urine.
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with John Greenlee, you can do so by scrolling up the page and clicking the green Play button in the green bar.
Have you incorporated ornamental grasses into your landscape? Share with us in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.
“The Moonlit Garden” by Scott Ogden
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