Healthy & Beautiful Gardens – Ornamental grasses

Hello, fellow gardeners! This week I’d like to discuss another of my favorite groups of plants. They’re right up there with succulents, and are referred to as either clumping or ornamental grasses.

Personally, I don’t think a garden’s complete without at least one type of clumping grass in it. The grass adds an entire dimension to the garden. This is not only due to its movement in the breeze, but also its color and texture.

Ornamental grass come in sizes from less than 8” high; one of those smaller varieties is the Festuca glauca, also known as “Blue Fescue.” One of the best is “Elijah Blue,” and it’s available at most nurseries.

Another great ornamental grass is the Arundo donax – “Giant Reed” which can get up to 14’ high – I would not recommended this unless you have lots of space.

Pampas grass I never recommend to my clients, even though its everywhere. This is because it’s an invasive non-native species.

Some of my personal favorites in the landscape are Calamagrotis acutiflora, or “Karl Foerster”; Helictotrichon sempervirens, or “Blue Oat Grass”; Miscanthus sinensis, or “Dwarf Maiden Grass”; and Panicum virgatum, or “Blue Switch Grass.”

“Karl Foerster” is a feather reed grass; it grows upright and narrow, is drought tolerant and great in tight spaces. “Blue Oat Grass” is a great pick for this area because it has a beautiful color and gets about 3’ tall and wide. “Dwarf Maiden Grass” is another great pick. It gets about 4’ high and 3’ wide. Blue switch grass, which gets to be 3’ to 4’ tall, has brilliant blue foliage and pinkish plumes. All of these grasses require little to no water, which is great in a region such as this.

The “Pennisetums” are popular and available everywhere. A familiar varietal in this categoray is Pennisetum Rubrum, or “Purple Fountain Grass”; its everywhere – but it’s a nice color in the landscape, it’s reliable and it’s rugged, and that’s why it’s planted everywhere!

Pennisetum alopecuroides is another good “fountain grass” variety; it has light green leaves instead of dark purple, with pinkish seed heads.

Panicum virgatum, or “Cloud Nine” is a tall switch grass varietyis for those who want a “big” grass in the landscape, this one gets about 5-6’ high, and you can mass several together for a very striking display or focal point in the garden.

Schizachyrium scoparium, or “Little Bluestem” is a great 2-3’ blue grass that adds a much desired blue color into the otherwise boring green landscape, it likes good drainage and groups of three look great together.

There are lots of other varieties out there; I recommend checking to make sure they work in our climate zone, care, etc. before bringing them home and planting them.

There are a few other varieties of clumping grass that are well- known and available, and you will see them planted often. However, I’d like to give you my advice based on first-hand experience.

There is a grass called Nasella tenuissima that is commonly referred to as “Mexican Feather Grass”. My warning to you is that this is a very rampant spreader by seed.

If you love it, great, because it will pop up all over your yard. If you just want a grass in just a couple places, this isn’t the one for you. It throws out thousands of tiny seeds that literally go everywhere. Trust me on this one.

Another grass that I would suggest only if you know how it grows is or Imperata cylindrical or “Japanese Blood Grass”. It spreads by runners, and is not easy to get out if it likes where it’s at. Grow it in a pot to be safe.

It is a beautiful grass though, lime green with dark maroon on the upper half, so it may be worth the effort. So those are my warnings on a couple commonly available grasses so you don’t have to deal with the problems later.

Grasses are very easy to grow; most have low water requirements, but some like a little more. But since grasses are perennials, they will need to be cut down low every year and they will come back with all new growth.

I typically do this in late winter, just before the new Spring growth starts. Some also do good with “dividing” every few years – Muhlenbergia aka “Pink Muhly Grass,” which is a native grass, needs this. Another one of my errors you profit from. I let mine grow unhindered and now its so thick, you can literally use it for a garden seat now!

Grasses look fantastic in mixed borders, perennials beds, on slopes, and just about anyplace and in any type of landscape you can think of. I’ve never had any pests or diseases bother my ornamental grasses, so that’s a nice little bonus in the garden also.

Well, that’s it for this week. Hope you will try one or more of my suggested ornamental grass varieties and as always, I am available for consultations and design work. Happy Gardening!

Linda McDonald

Landscape Designer

(951) 764-4762

One Response to "Healthy & Beautiful Gardens – Ornamental grasses"

  1. Jane Carter   August 8, 2014 at 5:15 am

    As a garden enthusiast, I am always on the lookout for ways to create that special atmosphere one experiences in the gardens of Provence and Tuscany. Recently I found a wonderful resource in West Palm Beach, Florida: Authentic Provence ( Walk into this oasis of calm, and you will see what I think is the finest collection of European garden antiques available in the USA: statues, fountains, planters (note especially the classic Caisse de Versailles, and Anduze pottery), terra cotta shields, stone animals, copper pots, garden spouts, and on and on. They also have beautiful stone fireplaces, re-purposed tiles, and many other specialty items. The staff is very adept at finding that special item, and in arranging shipping to anywhere in the USA. Definitely worth a visit, AND there is a great coffee shop across the street!


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