Home: Blades of Glory

It’s the word-association game. Ready? Quick — I say “grass,” and you say … “green,” right?

Rick Darke wants to change that.

Darke, who was the curator of plants at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square for more than a decade, is one of the world’s foremost experts on ornamental grasses. He wrote the book on them — multiple books, in fact, most recently the Timber Press Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses (Timber Press, 2004). Today he’s a landscape ethicist, providing clients with environmentally responsible landscaping advice, and it’s in this role that he’s come to love grasses in all their feathery, plumy grace.

“What’s fueling interest in them,” Darke says, “is that American gardeners are maturing, and making gardens that reflect where they live.” That means we’re relying less on fussy, exotic imports like delphinium and campanula, and more on local plants that are already adapted to life in the Delaware Valley. Which means less watering, fertilizing and pest control, which is where the ethics come in. When you choose plants for your garden that revel in its conditions, rather than those that require you to alter the environment, you have a win-win: a healthy, gorgeous landscape, plus easy care.

Ornamental grasses have “easy care” written all over them. “They’re very tolerant,” says Kathleen Evans, staff horticulturalist at Bucks Country Gardens in Doylestown. “And they don’t have a lot of pests. Even deer don’t bother them.” In fact, grasses are among the easiest plants to care for. “Gardeners have been taught to fertilize and to water,” says Darke. “I’m saying — wouldn’t you like to have more time? Wouldn’t you rather have a wineglass than the hose in your hand?”

Ornamental grasses are in a catchall category that includes everything from dainty blue fescue that tops out at a foot, to 3- to 5-foot switchgrass, to Carex pennsylvanica, a native sedge that grows 4-8 inches. The key is finding the right plant for the right place. You can narrow your options, says Catherine Renzi, co-owner of Yellow Springs Farm Native Plants Nursery in Chester Springs, by asking questions: “What sun and moisture does the setting get? Is it a wet spot? Shady? Clay soil? Boggy? Sandy? On a slope?” Nurseries and garden centers are carrying more and more options to suit every site.

About all the care grasses need is cutting back to a few inches from the ground in early spring. Instead of fertilizing, which can cause grasses to grow too tall too fast, Renzi suggests composting with dead plant matter. “If a plant begins to look sparse in the center,” she says, “it’s time to divide it” — by digging up the clump and slicing it into 6-inch sections with a sharp spade.


It’s tempting to use grasses as dramatic punctuation points, but Dan Vitelli, a landscape architect at Flagg’s Garden Center in Moorestown, New Jersey, says to fight the urge. “I like grasses best when you can grow a swath of them,” he says. “Think of a tulip. One tulip doesn’t have much impact; they’re much more attractive en masse.” The most common mistake gardeners make with grasses, Vitelli says, is picking too big a variety for a given space: “You have to think about what it will look like in five years.”

Gardeners whose tastes run to the latest super-hyper-tetraploid annuals may not see the appeal in plants that are mostly foliage, and, that even when in bloom, rely more on texture than on bright colors.Renzi loves purple love grass for its subtlety (name aside). “It’s not purple like royal purple,” she says. “It just has a purple haze.”

Where grasses shine is, well, in the sun. “What is unique is the way they reveal light passing through the landscape,” says Darke. “They have a luminous quality. I work hard to make them the glowing stars of a garden. You have to know how the light moves through your landscape, know when your grasses will be backlit or side-lit, and put them where you’ll get views at the best times of day.”


Unlike lawn grasses, which Renzi says are “only slightly more porous than road,” ornamental grasses offer significant ecological benefits. They protect against erosion, and their root systems act as filters, taking up pollutants and actually making runoff water cleaner. They also provide wildlife cover: “Birds will nest between them,” says Darke, “or flutter in and take a break.”

Gardeners who care about grasses tend to care about the environment. “It’s really about an ethic, a belief system,” says Darke. He dreams of a Delaware Valley full of communal landscapes, with neighboring gardeners working together to cultivate their surroundings to a more natural state. “If that happened,” he says, “we wouldn’t have a lot of little postage-stamp gardens that consume resources. We’d have a continued habitat with plants that celebrate where they are.”