Side borders with Mexican feather grass, Nassella tenuissima (f/k/a Stipa) and Setcreasea pallida 'Purple Heart.'

Ornamental grasses breathe life

Ornamental grasses breathe life into your garden and knit your landscape together blade-by-blade.

Let me count the ways.
  • As the wind blows, grasses sway with feathery grace and swishing sound.
  • They provide cover, summer through winter, for pollinators and the small creatures that make your garden sing.
  • Often, they bloom in late summer and early fall when the rest of the garden is winding down.
  • They offer elusive winter interest. Unless we get heavy snow, grasses stand straight and tall until spring.
  • They look good during every season of the year except in early spring when you cut back most, but not all. Even then, they blend in with other plants until it’s their turn to shine.
Pink muhly grass always reminds me of my friend, Faire, who turned me onto this pink confection.

Pink muhly grass is a garden superstar. Until September, it waits patiently looking like a small bluish grass. Then, Kapow! Everyone should grow this beauty if its hardy in your climate. I know it’s hardy in Zone 7a. I grow both Regal Mist and Fast Forward.

Last week, I did a Facebook live video showing off some of my ornamental grasses.

As you listen, picture me waving my arms while saying, “What can ornamental grasses do for your garden? So much!”

Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio' with one of my pretty coleus, maybe 'Gnash Rambler.' Also, purple smoke bush or tree is peeking out from behind the coleus.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’ with one of my pretty coleus, maybe ‘Gnash Rambler.’ Also, purple smoke bush or tree is peeking out from behind the coleus.

Do you remember a time when these superb plants weren’t part of garden design? I do. Older landscape styles were much more static. Designers relied heavily upon a few standard shrubs and trees along with exclamation points of annual bedding plants like begonias and impatiens in summer and pansies and violas in winter. The next time you’re out driving look at some commercial landscapes to get an idea of this aesthetic.

Tightwad Red crapemyrtle with Miscanthus sinensis, maiden grass behind.

Tightwad Red crapemyrtle with Miscanthus sinensis, maiden grass, behind. Notice how the stiff dark crapemyrtle is enhanced by the soft and flowy grass. That’s one way grasses breathe life into the landscape.

Bah. It bores me to tears. These days landscape designers are much more conscious of beauty, sound and movement in the garden. Plus, customers accept more divergence. Ornamental grasses are definitely part of this design initiative.

Can you see P. virgatum 'Hot Rod' behind the plants in these pots? I placed it to give some upright growth for the fall season. Then, I'll replant it somewhere.

Can you see P. virgatum ‘Hot Rod’ behind the plants in these pots? I placed it to give some upright growth for the fall season. I’ll replant it somewhere in the garden once we get a freeze because it’s a perennial.

Ornamental grasses are pretty easy too.

Other than cutting them down in late winter/early spring, there is very little maintenance. Some, like Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass–shown at the top of this post–don’t even want that. You comb it instead. There is no deadheading and pruning. In my labor-intensive landscape, I find grasses a huge relief. Occasionally, they need tying up, but that’s about it. Click on the gallery below to enlarge the photos and see how my husband tied up the zebra grass. Snort. Subtlety is not in his nature.

A few weeks ago, I planted five P. virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ switchgrasses along my basement wall to break up its hard surface. To soften the retaining wall next to my basement, I planted a large variety of plants in a naturalistic border. Things are starting to take shape as you can see in the gallery above.

Because grasses are now so popular, there are many choices for your garden. Some of my favorites are:
  • Maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis. ‘Adagio’ is a favorite selection.
  • Melinis nerviglumis, ruby grass. I like ‘Pink Crystals’ and ‘Savannah.’
  • Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’
  • P. virgatum ‘Hot Rod’ is a new selection I found for my front pots. After the freeze, I’m going to pull it out and move it somewhere in the garden. I haven’t decided where yet. It’s also supposed to be a bit shorter than some switchgrasses at 3′ to 5′ tall.
  • P. virgatum ‘Northwind’ is still a tall favorite in my garden. I divided it last fall after the tour and placed at the end of all four beds in the back garden. It should be back to its normal self next summer. I hope.
  • P. virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Dallas Blues.’ These are two older ones, but they’re still great.
  • Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Lenca’ Regal Mist® pink muhly grass. ‘Fast Forward’ is supposed to bloom earlier than Regal Mist. I grow both of them and haven’t been able to tell the difference.
  • Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ purple fountain grass.
  • P. purpureum ‘Fireworks’
  • Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Ginger Love’
  • Muhlenbergia reverchonii ‘PUNDO1 S’ UNDAUNTED® ruby muhly grass
Grasses don’t require much, but most like well-drained, somewhat sandy soil.

Don’t plant them in heavy clay. If you have heavy clay, amend the soil with compost or shredded leaves and work it into the clay breaking it up. Many grasses don’t require a lot of nitrogen so basic compost or leaf mold should work. It does for me.

Some grasses like little bluestem just want regular prairie soil. I water too often in my garden for little or big bluestem so I just enjoy it in the acreage we own across the street. We let the grass grow there all summer. Sorry I don’t have a photo.

If you’re wondering what to put with grasses, mums and asters are excellent choices, as are native shrubs and other perennials. ‘Fall Charm’ chrysanthemum is new to my garden, and I just love its bicolor blooms. So much so that I shared this beauty shot on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Chrysanthemum 'Fall Charm'

Chrysanthemum ‘Fall Charm’ new to my garden this year.

So now you have some ideas for ornamental grasses. Where will you grow yours? I’d love to hear which ones are your favorites. If you haven’t ever considered growing these worthy plants before, plant some and watch your garden come to life.

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12 comments on “Ornamental grasses breathe life

  1. Nancy Williams

    Loved the grasses video and walkabout. This will be my first year with grasses, (two dwarf miscanthus sinensis, and two Adagio) but I can see I will want more. Really appreciate the care advice. How long does that aster bloom?

    1. Dee Nash

      It blooms for about three weeks. Thanks for reading and stopping by!

  2. Robin Ruff Leja

    You do have a great number of lovely grasses! I have five different types of perennial grasses, plus I often grow a few annual varieties. My favorite will always be Karly Rose pennisetum. It’s definitely a summer grass. The minute frost hits, the lovely seedheads begin to shatter. But all summer long they sway and delight me.

  3. Malek. Garden designer

    Great post. Nice grasses, you are right about ornamental grasses all customers need it in design! because they’re low maintenance plants .

  4. Pat Leuchtman

    Dee – This is a helpful post. I don’t have any ornamental grasses in my garden because I was so terrorized seeing the difficulty some people had dividing obstreperous ever-larger clumps. However, there are now so many grasses available now, some more manageable, that I am going to have to give some a try in the spring. Thanks for the push.

    1. Dee Nash

      Hi Pat, yes, there are a lot more manageable ones now. Small ones.

  5. Layanee

    I guess that I would say that the Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ is my favorite grass. It is an old standby but it is a performer, a later bloomer and has wonderful sway and sound. Love your shots.

  6. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening

    I don’t know the names of some of my grasses because they were here when I moved in. I have Japanese blood grass, blue fescue, Cheyenne Sky Panicum, and a variegated miscanthus. Also another shortish one that I just don’t know what it is. I am looking forward to adding more grasses year by year.

  7. Lisa at Greenbow

    I have only one big grass in my garden and I don’t even know what kind it is. Someone gave it to me. If I thought I could grow that pink muhley grass I would try it. My problem is I don’t have full sun much. I do have some short grasses, dwarf mondo, black lirope and a couple others I don’t know their names.ha.. The story of my garden.
    That is a gorgeous mum.

  8. the blonde gardener

    I have dwarf zebra grass that I love. It’s pretty all through the seasons.

  9. Kat

    You are making me rethink grasses. I do need to know tho are they deer resistant. I live in a very rural area and deer consider my yards as a drive-thru. Thank you

  10. indygardener

    Hi Dee. I just started adding grasses to my garden about five years ago, and have a ways to go to add more. I’ve got some switchgrass… ‘Shenandoah’ which I planted around a utility box with some old-fashioned daylilies and agastache. And in my prairie garden, which I don’t water much, I added Little Bluestem. It looks great there. Grasses are super-easy as you pointed out. I think they help blend all the other plants together nicely.