- 12 Ornamental Grasses for Landscaping
- Masses of Grass: Planting Large Groupings Of Ornamental Grasses
- Massing: Formal & Geometric, or Informal & Natural?
- Designing Formal, Geometric Plantings With Grass
- Designing Informal, Natural Plantings With Grass
- Grasses for small gardens
12 Ornamental Grasses for Landscaping
Ornamental grasses are essential when it comes to tying a landscape together. Bringing different textures and motion to a landscape, these grasses bring the landscape to life, creating a soothing mood for your outdoor sanctuary. Whether it is the silvery shimmer of a Sweet Bay Magnolia blowing in the breeze or the silver sway of the Maiden Grass, a landscape without such motion will lack that extra dimension and serenity.
1. Liriope muscari ‘Aztec Grass’
Aztec Grass has come onto the scene as a better alternative to the traditional variegated Liriope. Aztec Grass is more silvery in appearance, compared to the yellow variegated variety. Aztec Grass also works great as a border, mass planting or as a container accent plant. Plant it in a shady area or a rock garden. This grass also tolerates poor soil and requires little to no maintenance. It slowly sends out underground rhizomes, making it a moderately slow growing groundcover.
2. Monkey Grass, Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’
This clumping grass is hardy throughout most of the United States. Big Blue is an evergreen grass in southern states and may need to be cut back with the lawn mower further north. Big Blue blooms lavender flowers in summer and grows in full sun to partial shade. This grass also tolerates animals and poor soil.
3. Variegated Monkey Grass, Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’
This plant struggles with full sun and extreme heat. Cut back with the mower or weedeater if brown tips appear. Variegata makes a great border grass and also makes quite a statement in a mass planting. Its unique color adds a unique look to the landscape as well as a change of texture.
4. Dwarf Fountain Grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
Dwarf Fountain grass is much hardier than its relative, Purple Fountain Grass that is considered to be an annual in most of the states. Dwarf Fountain grass is a perennial grass throughout most of the United States. It gets loaded with tan plumes and only growing 2 to 3 foot tall, it won’t overwhelm the area in which you put it. Like so many ornamental grasses, this grass looks great in rock gardens and dry creek beds. This grass has great drought tolerance but can also tolerate moist areas too.
5. Purple Fountain Grass, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’
This annual grass makes a great backdrop for annual beds or accents for large planters. Its purple colored grass and burgundy plumes. This annual prefers full sun and will grow 3 to 4 feet tall. This plant is only considered a perennial in zones 9 and 10.
6. Maiden Grass, Miscanthus seninsis ‘Gracillimus’
This tight clumping grass has a brilliant soft texture and unique green and silver foliage. Maiden grass grows well in full sun and well drained soil. Do not prune back until late winter, as the foliage and plumes bring an interesting look in the winter and provide protection to the plant, against the cold. Maiden grass which grows to be 6 to 7 feet tall, also comes in a dwarf variety which grows 3 to 4 feet tall.
7. Zebra Grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Zebra’
This grass is very adaptable in many soil types. Full sun is recommended and moist soil is preferred. Do not prune grass back until February, right before new grass is to appear.’ Little Zebra’ Grass holds a tight shape like Dwarf Maiden Grass, making it reasonable for smaller spaces. It also comes in a taller variety, ‘Zebrinus’, which can grow 6 to 8 feet tall.
8. Muhly Grass, Muhlenbergia caprillaris ‘Lenca’
This soft looking airy grass puts on an amazing show in late summer, almost appearing to smoke with its pink blooms. Plant them in mass plantings for an incredible display. Full sun is preferable and plant in well drained, moist soil although they have good drought tolerance. Muhly can grow to 4 feet tall and are hardy in zones 6 to 9.
9. Pampas Grass, Cortaderia selloana
This grass, once established, could stop a runaway tractor trailer. Be sure that you are selective with your spot because removal is not really an option. This grass is awesomely awful, therefore it made the list. This grass should be used as a screen to block out neighbors but never in front of the house or at the ends of driveways. The blades are like razor-wire, therefore removal is treacherous. Pampas has some of the biggest, most beautiful plumes, often tricking people. Pampas can get 10 feet tall and dwarf can still reach 6 to 7 feet.
10. Blue Fescue, Festuca glauca
Blue Fescue is a short, clumping ornamental grass that looks great as a mass planting or as a border grass. This evergreen grass also has good drought tolerance once it is established. Blue Fescue grows to about 1 foot tall and 1 foot wide and often is used as a groundcover or in rock gardens and around dried creek beds as well. The unique blue color helps it stand out, no matter what the application.
11. Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus
This tropical herb has come onto the scene very quickly and is becoming so popular for its citrus taste and many culinary uses. These roots can usually survive winters in zone 8b but really thrives in zones 10 through 11 as an evergreen. Lemongrass needs full sun but can be overwintered inside on a south facing window if your climate gets too cold. The stalks of lemongrass are ready for harvest once they are 1 foot tall and ½ inch round. Plant lemongrass in a well-drained soil, with full sun. How To Grow Lemongrass?
12. Fireworks Fountain Grass, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’
Of course an ornamental grass with this kind of brilliant color would be an annual grass throughout most of the United States. Like ‘rubrum’, Fireworks is grown primarily as an annual. Although cold hardy from zone 9 to 11 ‘Fireworks’ makes a great plant for planters or a backdrop of an annual bed. Be sure to plant in a well-drained soil in the full sun. Its plumes have just as brilliant of a color as the grass itself and blooms in the summer.
Trimming back ornamental grasses
As far as evergreen grasses are concerned, you can trim the brown tips off them in the spring, once the low temperatures are above 55 degrees. As far as the grasses that go dormant in the winter, you will want to cut them completely back in early spring, after the threat of frost is gone. With either grass it is alright to tidy it up any time if it gets unruly. Annual grasses like Purple Fountain and Fireworks Pennisetum I would not recommend cutting completely back due to the short growing season. Ornamental grasses are the most forgiving plants, as they will come back for you just about any time you cut them down.
Fertilizing ornamental grasses
Ornamental grasses should only be fertilized during the active growing season. This means that if the low temperatures are below 55 degrees, then you should not be fertilizing. A well balanced fertilizer like 10-10-10 would be a good option for ornamental grasses in the spring.
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Ornamental grasses can add a great finishing touch to your garden, enhancing texture, creating depth and boosting the character of your outside space.
They are so great in fact that the Horticultural Trades Association have named their ‘Plant of the Moment’ for August as ornamental grass. They can be planted in bold clusters within large borders or flower beds, scattered loosely among other plants or set apart in large patio pots, where their individual shape can be fully appreciated.
Some of the best things about ornamental grasses are they are long-lasting and good value for money. Here are some of the best ornamental grasses for your garden and top tips from the Horticultural Trades Association on making the most from these plants…
Top 4 ornamental grasses for your garden
Festuca Georgia Glynn SmithGetty Images
Pennisetum fotosanjayGetty Images
Miscanthus OrchidpoetGetty Images
Stipa Annette LeppleGetty Images
Top tips for planning and planting
- Plant the grasses in groups or drifts rather than singularly.
- Make sure to plant tall grasses in large, heavy pots to stop them being blown over.
- A good way to conserve moisture is to line the inside of terracotta pots with plastic from old compost bags.
- Always cut off old growth, such as the tips of Miscanthus that die over winter. This will allow new growth to flourish in spring.
5 other attractive ornamental grasses
- Slender Sweet Flag ‘Ogon’ (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’)
- Arundo donax
- Cortaderia (Pampas Grass)
Ornamental grasses in patio pots including Miscanthus and Imperata Adam Pasco Media
7 good planting partners for ornamental grasses
- Bergamot (Monarda didyma)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’)
- Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’
- Herb Fennel
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Masses of Grass: Planting Large Groupings Of Ornamental Grasses
by David Salman
Chinese Maiden Hair Grass with a mass planting of Lavender
Ornamental grasses are some of our very best garden plants. They’re low care perennials with a big impact on the look of our landscapes. With their fine-textured foliage, attractive flowers and seed heads, graceful movement in the breeze along with extended fall and winter beauty, they give us a remarkable visual contrast with flowering perennials, shrubs and other garden plants.
But ornamental grasses look best when used in larger numbers. How often do you see a prairie or meadow with just one grass plant?
Follow David Salman’s recommendations for gorgeous mass plantings with Ornamental Grass. With these tips, you can create a breathtaking garden that is low maintenance, yet still has a major visual impact.
Ornamental Grass Garden with Nassella tenuissima and Little Bluestem grasses combine for an informal planting style at the Denver Botanic Garden in autumn.
Massing: Formal & Geometric, or Informal & Natural?
Grasses are accustomed to growing in groups, which in gardening terminology is referred to as “massing.” Massing can also refer to planting large numbers of grass plants (without other non-grass plants) to create dramatic geometric 3-D patterns. This can be accomplished in both formal and informal ways. Grasses lend themselves to being planted in pleasing geometric patterns or simply grouped together in less formal arrangements.
Blonde Ambition Blue Grama Grass works for formal plantings as shown in this municipal landscape planting in New Mexico.
Designing Formal, Geometric Plantings With Grass
For structured plantings, follow these key guidelines:
- Use long-lived species and cultivars. Short-lived varieties like blue Festuca ovina cultivars and Nassella (Silky Thread Grass) are not good choices.
- Use grasses that don’t reseed themselves to any large extent. Otherwise, they quickly fill in between the original plants and destroy the planting pattern.
- Use grasses that grow as clumps, not ones that spread to create large mats via stolons (arching stems that push from the center of the grass and develop roots at the nodes where they touch the ground). Leymus arenarius and related species are “runners.” These grasses are best used to cover slopes, beaches, and other larger areas.
- Stick with one grass variety to accentuate the visual impact by creating uniformity of the planting. However, two or three types of grasses can be combined by planting differently-sized grasses in geometric grid patterns that are placed side by side.
Blonde Ambition Blue Grama Grass planted with Pink Flamingo Mulhy Grass perfectly play off each other with their attractive foliage, and bright plumes.
Foer example, I’ve seen formal plantings of Nassella tenuissima (Silky Thread Grass) that for a couple of growing seasons, looked really nice. But Nassella is not a long-lived species, which for a geometric mass planting, is not good. By the third year, some of the original plants had died and there were a lot of volunteer seedlings that had filled in between the original plants. Thus the geometric unity of the design was ruined by gaps in the original grid and in-fill from volunteer seedlings.
Recommended Long-Lived, Low-Reseeding Grasses For Formal, Geometric Groupings:
- Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Blue Grama Grass)
- Calamagrostis acutiflora (‘Karl Foerster’ and variegated cultivars)(Feather Reed Grass)
- Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue Avena Grass)
- Muhlenbergia dubia (Pine Muhly Grass)
- Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingo’ (Hybrid Muhly Grass)
- Panicum virgatum cultivars (‘Heavy Metal’, ‘Ruby Ribbons’, ‘Shenandoah’), Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ (Little Bluestem Grass)
- Sorghastrum nutans ‘Thin Man’ (Blue Indian Grass)
Caradonna Sage (Salvia) and Magnus Purple Coneflowercombine beautifully with Ruby Muhly Grass in this Sonoma, CA garden.
Designing Informal, Natural Plantings With Grass
For informal plantings, there is much more latitude. Informal designs allow the gardener to use a variety of grass species and cultivars, that are grouped in non-geometric patterns. Informal plantings accommodate shorter lived types, varieties that re-seed themselves and stoloniferous types along the edges. The gardener needs to do some “editing” each spring to thin out volunteer seedlings, so the planting doesn’t become too dense and too much of a scrambled mixture.
There are so many possible combinations that will beautify the garden. But be sure that you used odd numbers of each grass (3,5,7) planted together. Mix the groups of one type with groups of other types. One each, of many different kinds of grass creates a hodge-podge design with no visual focal points on which the eye can rest. Use shorter types masses around groups of larger growers. It is also permissible to include groupings of larger growing perennial flowers to provide color and contrast. Prairie species of flowering perennials are always a good choice.
White Cloud Muhly Grass is a hard-to-find ornamental grass which thrives in both heat and humidity. This perennial grass is perfect for plantings of atleast three.
Recommended Grasses For Informal, Naturalizing Plantings:
Create habitat for butterfly/moth caterpillars and seed-eating songbirds by using native species and cultivars. Look for these grass species:
- Sorghastrum nutans (Indian Grass)
- Panicum virgatum (Prairie Switch Grass)
- Schizachyrium (Little Bluestem Grass)
- Andropogon (Big Bluestem Grass)
- Muhlenbergia (Muhly Grass)
- Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Blue Grama Grass)
- Sporobolus wrightii ‘Windbreaker’ (Giant Sacaton Grass)
- Muhlenbergia reverchoniii (Undaunted® Ruby Muhly)
Grasses for small gardens
Swathes of tall, wafting grasses look wonderful in large gardens, but they can also be used to great effect in a small space.
It pays to be bold when using ornamental grasses, which tend to work best dotted throughout border schemes, mingling with other plants. Many will look good until the end of autumn, undergoing subtle colour changes as the seasons progress.
The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, having evolved to cope with every conceivable soil and site. This means you can choose species that suit your garden conditions, as well as your taste.
Discover our pick of grasses for small gardens, below.
Our native purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea first flowers in May and adopts subtle shades of green, blue and purple. However, as its flower stems head skyward they change to gold, and when they extend and open, they start to shimmer. The plants that make the greatest impact are bred from the subspecies Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea, which is much taller. Molinias are the most versatile of grasses, and the changes in light from dawn to dusk, or from storm to glorious sunshine, give them different guises. Plant them against a dark background to enjoy the full benefit of their sunlit golden stems, but make sure you can see them silhouetted against a brilliant blue autumn sky, too.
Molinia caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’ bears vertical, needle-like foliage and refined upright flower stems, this molinia forms a compact clump that’s ideal for a small space. You can also see through it, to other treats growing behind.
Height x Spread: 75cm x 50cm
Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’
The two best reasons for growing miscanthus are their statuesque presence in the garden and their magnificent flowerheads, or inflorescences, which last for months, making a striking feature from late summer into winter. Some cultivars, such as ‘Flamingo’ have silky pink flowers that cascade softly, while others, such as ‘Nippon’, have more upright spikes in a deep bronze-red. Neither of these is too big for a small garden and there are several other compact varieties. ‘Kleine Fontäne’ and ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ both grow to shoulder height. They bring light, air and movement into even the tiniest garden and since they grow upwards, they take up no more space than a clump of hardy geraniums.
H x S: 120cm x 50cm
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’
A brilliant addition to any hot-coloured planting, Imperata cylindrica spreads by underground rhizomes, but grows so slowly that it will never wander too far in our climate. Give it deep, fertile soil with plenty of humus to keep it happy.
H x S: 50cm x 50cm
Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’
With its long pointed leaves, Hakonechloa macra must be the most elegant of grasses. It’s always impeccably groomed, with never a blade out of place. Brilliant in containers, it’s probably most effective when giving a solo performance. Grow it in sun or part-shade.
H x S: 35cm x 40cm
One of the prettiest grasses for shade, its dainty owers are widely spaced along its branching stems. It’s a woodlander and if you choose the variegated form, the silvery tones of the foliage and inflorescences will stand out even more in shade.
H x S: 40cm x 40cm
Wood melick (Melica uniflora)
Milium effusum ‘Aureum’
Milium effusum is ideal for adding zingy colour to a shady border. It self-seeds readily and looks especially effective in spring, when the dark ground is sprinkled with bright new seedlings. In summer its dainty owerheads dance on the breeze.
H x S: 60cm x 30cm
Milium effusum ‘Aureum’
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ is covered in fluffy flowerheads from midsummer onwards. Despite its delicate appearance, it’s totally hardy and extremely tolerant, even of heavy, damp soil.
H x S: 120cm x 100cm
Advertisement Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
If you have dry, hot conditions, you may get away with growing pennisetums. Pennisetum orientale has arching, fluffy heads of pink and crimson, wonderful with a dark sedum. Anpther one to try is Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Herbstzauber’. Its multiple fluffy flowerheads look like furry caterpillars.
How to grow ornamental grasses
Raising from seed – scatter seeds over the surface of damp seed compost and cover lightly with grit. Once the seedlings are sturdy enough, prick them out into modular trays and grow them on.
Dividing plants – many grasses can be increased by division, but do this in spring – never in autumn or winter. With some grasses, lift the whole clump, then pull or chop it into pieces. It’s best to pot up the resulting divisions, rather than planting them straight into the ground, as they will have a much higher chance of survival.
Growing in pots – when planting in containers, use a loam-based compost and make sure there’s good drainage. Generally, grasses don’t need feeding, but in containers an occasional dose of a weak liquid fertiliser will help them thrive.
Cutting back – never cut back evergreen grasses – simply comb out dead growth with your fingers. Molinias don’t need cutting back, as they simply collapse, however miscanthus, calamagrostis and panicums should be cut down to the base in spring.
Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ Not for nothing is this known as the blood grass – it’s the reddest of all grasses. At first, the upright leaves are pale green, with only the tips dipped in crimson. Then, as the season progresses, it’s as if the blood soaks down the leaves to the base until each leaf is saturated. Glows vividly with the sun behind it. Plant in groups of three or five to make the biggest impact. Sometimes listed as ‘Red Baron’. Grows to 45cm.
Grow it… In rich soil that does not dry out, and in full sun.
Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Bronzeschleier’ Tough but delicate looking. Its evergreen foliage makes tight, blue-tinted, dark green hummocks from which rises a see-through bronze haze of sparkling plumes. A fine partner for hellebores and hostas. Stays compact and is best left to steadily build into impressive clumps. Sometimes listed as ‘Bronze Veil’. Grows to 90cm.
Grow it… In partial shade, in moisture-retentive soil.
Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ Three colourful features are provided by this superb flowering and foliage grass: the upright foliage emerges bluish green, starts to develop reddish colouring in June, then by autumn is rich in burgundy. Plus, in late summer, there are pink plumes lined with purplish beads. Good with rounded plants like hardy geraniums, or those with flat flower heads like achilleas. Grows to 1.2m.
Grow it… In well-drained soil and an open position.
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ The classic grass for a container, its waterfall of narrow yellow, green-streaked foliage, carried on fine red stems, cascades over the rim. Steadily maturing with autumn tones of pink or even burgundy. Also a splendid partner for hostas in partially shaded borders but brightest in full sun. Grows to 38cm.
Grow it… In moisture-retentive soil, in sun or partial shade.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’ Miscanthus are among the most fashionable of grasses but choose carefully: some are enormous and invasive. ‘Adagio’ is neither. It is the most elegant of the smaller miscanthus and flowers reliably. Upright in growth, the prolific plumes open pink and mature to creamy white above silvery green leaves, turning yellow in autumn. Grows to 1.2m.
Grow it… In full sun. Tolerant of most soils.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’ Standing to attention to make striking vertical clumps, its narrow foliage emerges pink then matures to dark green with creamy margins, remaining upright for the entire season. The slender flower heads are also tinged with pink, but mature the colour of ripe wheat and hold right through the winter. Good as a specimen, with asters and achilleas. Grows to 90cm.
Grow it… In any good soil with plenty of sunshine.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’ Dwarf, clump-forming grass with slightly arching rabbit’s-tail flowers over foliage that turns red and orange in the autumn before becoming tan for the winter. The most dwarf of my selection, ideal for the front of the border or in a mixed container. Grows to 35cm.
Grow it… In sun or partial shade in well-drained but fertile soil
Helictotrichon sempervirens A gorgeous steely blue evergreen specimen grass for sunny borders and gravel gardens, or in a container. It matures into clumps like big steely-blue fireworks. Silver-blue flowers like oats emerge in summer then turn pale biscuit brown. May self-sow, but never overenthusiastically. Grows to 1m.
Grow it… In rich but well-drained soil, in full sun.
Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’ Combining colourful foliage and elegant flowers, the neat clumps of dark green leaves are striped in yellow and cream, and topped with arching purple-tinted flower heads. The whole plant turns buttery beige in autumn. Tough and adaptable, a good see-through plant for the middle of the border. Grows to 45cm.
Grow it… Almost anywhere that is not very dark, or dry.
Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ Vivid blue hair in low-growing evergreen tussocks which slowly expand over the years. In late spring, short blue-green flower plumes emerge, turning tan as they age. The more intense the light, the bluer the colouring. Lovely in gravel gardens, or even troughs or window boxes, with dwarf spring bulbs. Grows to 30cm.
Grow it… In a well-drained, sunny place. Divide and replant every three years.
All grasses are available from Hoecroft Plants, Severals Grange, Holt Road, Wood Norton, Dereham, Norfolk NR20 5BL.
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