Lawns are among the most useful of landscape features, but are also the most horticulturally incorrect. They require such constant maintenance and so much water that they give grass a bad reputation. Yet, the turf grasses that are used for lawn are actually a minority among grasses. There are so many more grasses, including a few turf grasses, that can add color, texture and the seldom considered asset of ‘motion’ to the landscape.
Most grasses move nicely in a breeze. Old fashioned pampas grass, with remarkably limber and long leaves, is one of the best for motion. As if the elegant foliage were not enough, billowy white flowers on tall sturdy stalks nod gracefully in season. (However, pampas grass gets quite large, has potentially dangerous foliage that can cause nasty paper cuts, and in rural areas, can escape into the wild to become an invasive weed.) Red fountain grass does the same on a smaller scale that is more proportionate to suburban gardens.
Red fountain grass also provides striking brownish red foliage. Blue festuca and larger blue oat grass, although insensitive to a breeze, provide really excellent pale blue foliage. The most popular variety of miscanthus grass is variegated with white. Hair grass is a weird yellowish green that resembles that of a rubbery fishing lure.
Besides the odd color, hair grass also has an oddly soft texture that allows it to spill over the edges of retaining walls and pots, with delicate autumn flowers that hover above like a swarm of gnats. Mexican feather grass seems somewhat coarse up close, but has the uniform texture of wheat at a distance. Switchgrass has a more rigid texture, and stands more vertically than other softer grasses. Feather reed grass does both, with flowers that stand vertically above the soft billowy foliage below.
There are as many different kinds of grasses as there are variations of color, texture and motion. Only a few are annual. Almost all are perennial. There are a few in between; perennials that die out in a few years. Most grasses are only a few feet tall. Some never get taller than a foot. Yet, a few get several feet tall.
Most grasses are at their best if they get cut to the ground every few years or even annually. However, some need no maintenance except only for watering. If satisfied with watering, some grasses can sow their seed to cover the outskirts of a landscape, and can be an appealing alternative to ground cover. There are even a few grasses that will naturalize without watering.