The growth cycle of ornamental grasses can act as a visual indicator for the passage of time. Spring brings neat, green tufts, followed by the exuberant foliage in the summer months. If you include a variety of grasses into your garden design now, you’ll enjoy a spectacular show in autumn with changing, foliage colors and feathered plumes.
Beautiful gardens do require maintenance, but by choosing certain plants, gardening work can be minimized by mid-summer. If you add ornamental grasses into your garden plans, you’ll enjoy the beauty of your garden—without as much effort. First, most established, ornamental grasses don’t require any additional watering or fertilizing. Once the dried tops have been sheared off, (approximately one-foot above the ground in early spring before the new growth starts) you can sit back and watch the magic happen—as these beautiful plants take shape throughout the seasons.
Grasses are classified as ‘clumpers’ or ‘creepers,’ referring to how they expand. This distinction is important to know before you plant. Since clump-forming grasses increase slowly over time and stay in a rounded, tuft form, these grasses are better choices for a confined, garden space. Creepers, however, multiply (depending on the variety) by producing vigorous runners above or under the soil. The runners are hard to control in fertile, garden soil where they can grow at warp speed. You are much safer when choosing the tamer ‘clumping’ varieties.
Variety is the spice of life and this saying is true for ornamental grasses, too. They are available in so many sizes and shapes that you’ll find it easy to fill a small container for a balcony or an army of grasses for an expansive landscape design. When deciding, choose the plant for its mature height and width before you purchase it for your garden.
Grasses can also create movement in the garden. With the calming sounds of rustling leaves, they whisper a gentle reminder of our prairie roots.
Here are a few classic, ‘clumping’ grasses—from the tallest to the smallest.
Miscanthus ‘Silberfeder’ (Silver Feather)
The dramatic, seven-foot, grass sports showy, silvery plumes with a touch of pink. It looks best when its plumes are back-lit by the late, afternoon sun. It is extremely, cold hardy. Place near evergreens for contrast.
Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (Feather Reed grass)
This neat, vertical grass has buff-colored, plumes that flower earlier in the summer than most grasses. It matures from 4 to 6 feet tall, including the plumes. Thriving in a full sun to part-sun location, they looks wonderful when planted in odd-numbered sweeps as a vertical element.
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ (Switch grass)
This sturdy, upright grass grows up to six-feet tall when in bloom. The thicker, blue-green leaves turn a golden-yellow color in the fall. Panicum virgatum is native to the North American, tall-grass prairies and was once one of the most prominent prairie grass species. Once established, it is very drought tolerant. Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Wisconsin developed this highly, recommended plant for our area. This plant likes full sun to partial sun and is effective in mass plantings or as a single specimen.
Molinia caerulea ‘Skyracer’ (Purple Moor grass)
Narrow, upright clumps of ‘see through’ grass grow from 24- to 36-inches tall. Stiff spikes shoot up to eight-feet in mid-summer. Cloud-like panicles will create a spectacular golden glow when backlit with early morning or late afternoon sun. Foliage and seed heads turn golden-yellow and amber in the autumn. When planted in full sun to partial sun, it will spread up to 36 inches in width. Very dramatic!
Stipa tenuissima ‘Wind Whispers’ (Mexican Feather grass)
Although, this 18-inch tall, this zone 7-10 plant doesn’t winter well in our area, the light green and tawny wisps of hair-like foliage look amazing when used as an annual in containers or when added to the perennial garden. It thrives in full sun, but it will grow in light shade.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ (Maiden grass)
This Miscanthus boasts finely, textured foliage with large copper-red inflorescences in fall. The narrow, green leaves turn a golden yellow in fall. Flower plumes persist throughout the winter months. This large, vase-shaped grass matures from four to five-feet tall and looks stunning when sited as a single specimen in zones 5-9.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ (Variegated Maiden grass)
It is similar to Maiden Grass ‘Gracillimus’ except it has variegated foliage. It still boasts copper-red plumes in late fall and has a similar, statuesque shape.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’ (Porcupine grass)
The green and yellow-banded grass has pink plumes that bloom in late fall. It matures to six-feet tall in full sun with an upright shape with relaxed foliage.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hamelin’ (Fountain grass)
It is prized for its neat, clumping mounds and ivory-white flowers that arrive in summer. This 20” tall Fountain Grass loves full sun in zones 5b-8. Great for containers, rock gardens, borders and ground cover.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’ (Dwarf Fountain grass)
An excellent grass that grows in tiny fine mounds of foliage with fluffy, pink bottlebrush flowers. It is 6- to 12-inches tall, thrives in full sun in zones 5b-9. Use in the front of borders and containers.
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (Golden Japanese Forest grass)
This short (12- to 14-inches) and graceful grass has yellow-striped, arching, glossy-green leaves with no noticeable blooms. It is best grown in part-shade in zones 5 to 9. The chartreuse-yellow foliage will brighten a shady garden.
Hakonechloa, macra ‘Beni-kazi’ (Japanese Forest grass)
Ribbons of chartreuse foliage turn red in autumn as they grow into soft mounds that look like waterfalls. The plant grows to 18-inches tall in part-shade, while most ornamental grasses perform best in full sun. The name means ‘red wind’ in Japanese.
Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Carousel’ (Dwarf Little Bluestem)
The smaller Bluestem has a rounded mound of spiky, blue foliage with upright flowering stems that change to copper, pink, tan and dark orange-red in autumn. It matures to 30” tall in full sun in zones 3-9. This Little Bluestem was discovered by Donald Boehm at Boehm’s Garden Center in Rushville, Illinois.