Designing with Ornamental Grasses

July 19, 2017

Ornamental grasses can provide year-round interest while being easy to maintain and incredibly versatile. In the spring and summer, ornamental grasses are bright and lush and in the fall and winter, provide texture and color. They come in all sizes from small, mounding groundcovers to 12 feet tall flowering grasses. Their range in color, texture, height, and growing conditions, make them easy to place whether it’s in a contemporary design, cottage garden, or small container garden.

Designing with ornamental grasses can start to be overwhelming once you realize how many choices you have. But, if you can narrow down where you want grasses to go and how you want them to function in your garden, you can easily pick and choose from these lists to create a beautiful and lush landscape that you’ll love to look at all year long.

Water Loving:

  • Variegated Japanese Sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Aurea-Variegata’)– green and white thin, stiff leaves, mounding form, evergreen, works well near rain gardens, water gardens, or along edges of ponds
  • Striped Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus ‘Variegatus’)– evergreen, variegated green and white foliage that resembles Iris foliage, can handle bog-like conditions and standing water along with consistently moist soils
  • Prairie Fire Switch Grass (Panicum ‘Prairie Fire’)– emerges with blue-green foliage which changes to deep red, late summer blooms are pale red, works well in rain garden settings, evergreen
Water Loving Grasses (Photos Courtesy of LeBeau Bamboo Nursery, Fine Gardening, and Missouri Botanic Garden)

Water Loving Grasses (Photos Courtesy of LeBeau Bamboo Nursery, Fine Gardening, and Missouri Botanic Garden)

Drought Tolerant:

  • Blue Oatgrass (Helictrichon sempervirens)– blue-grey, evergreen foliage with stalks of creamy, white flowers in summer, great for rock gardens
  • Burgundy Bunny Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Burgundy Bunny’)– reddish green grass blades which turn more red in late summer/fall topped with creamy flower plumes in fall, works well along dry stream beds or as accent plants in sunny locations
  • Electric Pink Cordyline (Cordyline banksii ‘Electric Pink’)– maroon and pink variegated grass-like blades stand out wherever its planted, great paired with Canna and other tropical-esque plants, great in containers as an annual in our region
Drought Tolerant Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Verde River Growers and Monrovia)

Drought Tolerant Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Verde River Growers and Monrovia)

For Height:

  • Giant Feather Grass (Stippa gigantea)– densely mounded grass with green arching foliage and panicles that open as silvery-purple, maturing to a golden-yellow color, reaches about 8 feet tall
  • Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster)– deciduous grass with purplish cream flower stalks, provides good winter interest, green, grass clump gets to be 3-5 feet tall with flower stalks reaching upwards of 6 feet fall
  • Purple Majesty Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’)– dark purple leaves and stems, can reach up to 6 feet tall including flower stalks, millet flowers are purple-tan and will attract birds, more of an annual grass in our region due to frosts
Tall Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Botanic Garden Photography and Fine Gardening)

Tall Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Botanic Garden Photography and Fine Gardening)

For Container Gardens:

  • Golden Variegated Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’)– evergreen grass-like perennial with bright variegated green and yellow foliage, reaches 6-12 inches tall and wide, cascades well over edges of pots
  • Live Wire Fiber Optic Grass (Isolepsis cernua ‘Live Wire’)– green, grass-like thin blades are accented by cream colored flower spikes which gives it, its fiber optic look, be sure to keep away from children and pets as it is poisonous if ingested, gloves are recommended as well when handling this plant as it may cause skin irritation, prefers consistently moist soil
  • Snow Cap Sedge (Carex siderostricha ‘Snow Cap’)– snow white foliage with thin green edges, adds light to dark spaces and containers, prefers shady areas
Container Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia, HGTV, and Bluestone Perennials)

Container Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia, HGTV, and Bluestone Perennials)

For Small Spaces:

  • Little Bunny Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’)- deciduous grass with foliage turning more golden russet in fall, tan colored plumes of flowers in fall, 12-18 inches tall and wide
  • Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass (Dechampsia cespitosa ‘Northern Lights’)– green and pale yellow variegated grassy foliage which turns golden yellow with pale pink tips in fall, small tan flowers rise above the grass clump in summer
  • Shenandoah Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’)– taller (about 3 feet fall), but narrow grass, foliage comes out blue-green and turns to maroon in early Summer and is soon followed by pink-red airy flower stalks
Small Space Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia)

Small Space Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia)

For Groundcovers:

  • Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’)– black grass-like foliage year-round with purple flowers in spring, spreads 9-12”
  • Variegated Lilyturf (Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’)– evergreen grass-like perennial with purple flowers in spring and variegated light green foliage, spreads 12-24”
  • Blue Zinger Sedge (Carex flacca ‘Blue Zinger’)– blue-green, finely textured foliage grows in clumps and spreads to be 12-18 inches
Groundcover Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Hoffman Nursery and White Flower Farm)

Groundcover Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Hoffman Nursery and White Flower Farm)

For Shade:

  • Greater Wood Rush (Luzula sylvatica)– soft green arching foliage, also comes in variegated varieties, drought tolerant in shady areas, short spikes of greenish-tan flowers appear in Spring
  • Golden Variegated Hakonechloa (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)– slow growing, deciduous, flowing golden yellow foliage, gets to be about 14” wide and tall, likes moist soil
  • Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea)– evergreen, bright green foliage has a puckering effect similar to seersucker fabric, flowers rise above foliage in Spring and are dark brown
Shade Grasses (Photos Courtesy Dave's Garden and Fine Gardening)

Shade Grasses (Photos Courtesy Dave’s Garden and Fine Gardening)

For Sun:

  • Bulbous Oat Grass (Arrhenatherum elatius bulbosum ‘Variegatum’)– green and white striped narrow leaves, works well in masses or as single accent plant
  • Yellow Foxtail Grass (Alopecurus pratensis ‘Aureus’)– bright, yellow-green variegated foliage, also works as a groundcover, best color will appear once cooler weather sets in
  • Morning Light Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’)– deciduous grass with graceful arching, variegated foliage, pale red flowers in fall and reddish-brown fall color
Sun Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia and Olgelsby Plants International)

Sun Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia and Olgelsby Plants International)

Fine Textured Grasses:

  • Elijah Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’)– blue-gray porcupine like tufts of foliage, light purple-tan flowers rise above grass blades with puffy seed heads which can be cut and used in flower arrangements
  • Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)– tall, airy stalks of light green foliage are followed by fragrant tan panicles in summer, foliage turns coppery-gold in fall
  • Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissim)– delicate, bright green foliage is topped by wispy tan flowers, sways nicely in the smallest of breezes, reseeds/naturalizes very easily so it should be planted in a woodland buffer, meadow or a similar area which allows for spreading
Fine Textured Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia and American Nurseryman)

Fine Textured Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Monrovia and American Nurseryman)

Coarse Textured Grasses:

  • Bronze Baby New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax ‘Bronze Baby’)– good in containers, has dark bronze colored foliage which arches at the tips
  • Bunny Blue Sedge (Carex laxiculmus ‘Hobb Bunny Blue’)– silvery-blue, dense mounding sedge with tiny yellow flowers in late Spring
  • Beni Kaze Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Beni-Kaze’)– deciduous grass with deep green leaves with streaks of red in late summer and into fall
Coarse Textured Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Gardener's Dream and Northcreek Nurseries)

Coarse Textured Grasses (Photos Courtesy of Gardener’s Dream and Northcreek Nurseries)

If you’re looking for further reading, you can check out July’s Plant of the Month post to learn more about the Carex species specifically.

If you’re thinking of adding in any of these ornamental grasses but not quite sure where to start or if a landscape design is right for your project, you can schedule a free phone consultation by filling out this form.

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