Garden Blitz

Patrice Peltier

Earlier this spring I was dismayed to find so much turfgrass in my garden. I wrote about it AND I ungraciously complained about it to every passerby who generously complimented the garden. These kind souls often seemed confused (but politely refrained from saying so) as I gestured with irritation at all the offending turfgrass.

Of course they were confused! My garden includes hundreds of grass plants — almost a dozen species — I planted on purpose and lovingly tended for the last eight years. So what the heck am I ranting about?

The grasses I planted are ornamental grasses — not turfgrass. What’s the difference? Turfgrass is grass that’s meant for lawns. It’s often Kentucky bluegrass, but there are frequently other species of turfgrass in a lawn seed mix. Turfgrass usually spreads by underground runners. It readily fills in empty spaces, stands up to a lot of foot traffic, and, with any luck (and a lot of fertilizer) creates a velvety carpet in our yards.

The grasses I want in my garden are known as ornamental grasses, chosen for qualities such as their form, size, foliage color, flowers (yes, grasses have flowers), fall color and winter interest. Some, like prairie dropseed, big bluestem and sideoats gramma are native plants. Others, like feather reed grass and Japanese forest grass, were imported from elsewhere for their special, decorative features. Some grow in shade while others prefer a sunny spot. There’s an ornamental grass for almost any growing condition.

Who decides what grasses are ornamental? It’s the same person who determined a dandelion is a weed and a daylily is a coveted flower. One definition of a weed is any plant that’s in the wrong place. I subscribe to that notion. It explains why Kentucky bluegrass is prized when it’s in the yard, and persona non grata when it’s in my garden.

Still, it all comes down to labels. I love the way Penn’s sedge, a native woodland ornamental grass, grows between my hostas and ferns, weaving the shady garden together and covering the ground to outcompete weeds. Why, then, am I enraged when Kentucky bluegrass pokes its slender leaves up through the perennials in the sunny garden? Why do I feel compelled to uproot the perennials so I can pry the turfgrass from each clump?

I wish I knew! Gardening would be so much easier if I could make my peace with turfgrass. Sadly, I don’t think there’s a chance that will happen. That’s one of the many reasons that, for me, gardening will always be blitz.

Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines.