Just like a family, ornamental grasses come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. Some say variety is the spice of life and this is also true for ornamental grasses. The exotic, Japanese Forest Grass holds its own in a container—while multiple groupings of the tall and magnificent Maiden Grass can add a large, architectural statement to a public space.
Grasses can rustle and flutter, wiggle or whisper. Most perennial grasses are also dependable and low- maintenance and usually, return obediently every spring as compact, green tufts. Come mid-summer, many show off exuberant feathery plumes that reach for the sky. Later, followed by the rustle of drying foliage, they stand like tan sentries in the autumn and winter months.
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 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.
Tip: When looking for a new type of grass for your garden, remember to choose one by its mature height. It takes only a few years for ornamental grasses to increase in size— especially in a more fertile garden soil.
Here is a list of ‘well-behaved’ clumping grasses, tall and small alike.
Mexican Feather grass (Stipa tennuissima or ‘wind whispers’): Although, this 18-inch tall, zone 6-7 plant doesn’t overwinter well in our area, the light green and tawny clouds of hair-like foliage look spectacular when used as an annual in containers or when placed among perennials in the garden. It thrives in full sun, but it will grow in light shade. The narrow foliage moves with the slightest breeze.
Dwarf Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Carousel’): This dwarf grass matures into a rounded, bowl-shaped mound of blue-green foliage with upright flowering stems that change to copper, pink, tan and burnished, orange-red in autumn. It grows to 30” tall and wide in full sun with fluffy, white seed heads in winter. Zones 3-9.
Golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’):This short (12- to 14-inches tall) and graceful grass has yellow-striped, arching, glossy-green leaves with no noticeable blooms. It is a wonderful plant for part-shade in zones 5 to 9. The chartreuse-yellow foliage will brighten a shady garden with its waterfall-like foliage. It functions as a groundcover or as a container plant.
Corkscrew rush* (Juncus effuses ‘Spiralis’): Although the Corkscrew Rush is really classified as a ‘rush’ and not as a grass, it is worth mentioning. It is an unusually exuberant annual with extremely curly, dark-green foliage. It will add lots of interest to any container or water garden. It’s easy to grow (10- to 18-inches tall) if given moist to wet soil. * An easy way to remember how to tell these plants apart is recited in an old garden rhyme, “Sedges have edges and rushes are round; grasses are hollow and rush all around.”
Feather Reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’): This upright, vertical grass has buff-colored, plumes that flower in June—earlier than most grasses— starting with tawny, pink tones. It matures from 3- to 5-feet tall, including the plumes. Thriving in a full sun to part-sun location, they fit into tight spaces and always look neat.
Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’): Blue-green leaves and good behavior are the main reasons to plant this spiky, little grass. It prefers sun to part shade and a dry sandy soil but does not thrive in clay soil. Perfect as a border plant, in containers or in mass plantings—maturing from 6- to 10-inches tall. Blue Fescue is a cool season grass and is evergreen in our zone 5.
Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’):This fine Miscanthus is a real diva. It is a statuesque, vase-shaped plant with finely textured leaves. Site it as a single specimen or plant in groupings on a large scale in full sun to part shade. Large, copper-red flowers (inflorescences) mature in fall as the narrow, green leaves turn a golden yellow. Dried, silver plumes persist throughout the winter months. Plants mature from 4- to 7-feet tall in zones 5-9.
Dwarf Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’):This little, short grass always gets lots of attention! It shows off its fluffy, pink bottlebrush flowers in tiny on top of shorter mounds of foliage. It is 6- to 12-inches tall, thrives in full sun in zones 5b-9. It’s best used in the front of borders but also gets attention as a container plant.
Sky's The Limit
Purple Moor grass (Molinia caerulea ‘Skyracer’): Narrow, upright clumps of ‘see through’ foliage grow from 24- to 36-inches tall. Stiff spikes shoot up to 8-feet tall in mid-summer. In autumn, the foliage and seedheads turn golden-yellow and amber—glowing like a cloud of gold when backlit by early morning or late afternoon sun. Tip: Plant in full sun to partial sun and it will spread up to 36 inches in width.