German nurseryman Karl Foerster called grasses “the hair of Mother Earth.” Thinking of grasses this way forms a beautiful image in my mind—sweeping, soft and swaying.
Observing grasses. Despite this mental image, grasses have many distinct personalities. Some are straight and stiff; others are sprawling or flowing. They can be vase shaped or vertical; grow in clumps or spread rapidly by rhizomes. Some have broad, thick blades; others are needlelike. They vary in height from mere inches to more than 6-feet tall. Their blades may be green, red, yellow or variegated. While most grow best in full sun, some are shade tolerant. And there is significant variation in the shape, structure and size of their inflorescence, or flower.
Grasslands cover broad expanses of land, though not as they once did before the development of cities and cultivation of crops. They dominate and define saltwater, freshwater and transitional marshes. They can punctuate a garden or serve as subtle blenders, visually pulling together a mix of diverse plants.
Throughout the gardening season, most play a supporting role, choosing instead to shine in late summer and fall, when other plants have faded or gone to bed. Many last throughout the winter, providing texture in the landscape and food for wildlife.
Photographing Grasses. We can photograph grasses individually, flowing in masses or as accents in a garden border. It’s fun to capture sunlight shimmering off their inflorescences. If the wind blows, we can slow our exposure to convey a sense of movement or shoot fast and capture them in a bent or swaying position. We can move in close, thinking of the stems much as we might a stand of trees in a forest, playing with different compositions and depth-of-field. Or we can use a macro lens to explore the stem, leaf nodes and seed heads in abstract or detail.
To emphasize the texture of grasses, it helps to increase the depth of field and structure (contrast in the middle tones). To capture the soft, flowing nature of grasses, reduce the depth of field and structure or add a diffusion filter.
Look around you, beyond the manicured lawns in your neighborhood or tow. See the beauty and diversity of grasses that thrive everywhere from meadows and marshes to disturbed roadsides and abandoned parking lots. Discover the character they add to different regions of the country and the world. See how they shine in the garden.