Ornamental grasses for your gardens. Love them or don’t!

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Home gardening has changed in recent years with the increased use of ornamental grasses in design. Grasses provoke fascinating responses from my clients. They either love ornamental grasses or they don’t.  

Why plant ornamental grasses?

It’s difficult to overlook the fact that ornamental grasses are relatively low-maintenance once they are established. A quick clean-up in May and a bit of fertilizer, and you’re good to go for the season. Most grasses are drought-tolerant once established and thrive in various growing conditions. With the slightest breeze, ornamental grasses offer movement and sound to any garden space. They provide year-round interest, even in winter, with their attractive seed heads and unique foliage.

I like the architectural shapes ornamental grasses offer a landscape. The narrow, upright habit of lean grasses is ideal for privacy screening. In contrast, the wispy shape of shorter grasses creates spectacular borders or hedges. For a bit of drama in the garden, select the sturdy, arching blades of a large specimen grass or tuck delightful dwarf grasses in with flowering perennials for added texture. There is a place for at least one or two ornamental grasses in every garden, whether your style is formal or informal.

Ornamental grasses, I use over and over in design

Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis)

Karl is a very reliable grass that can handle a wide range of conditions and still look good. Don’t we all wish we could be like that? Tall but not too tall, Karl reaches just over 48 inches in height and about 24 inches across in full sun. A cool-season grass – Karl will start growing in May before temperatures get too hot and continue to grow in the fall when temperatures cool – Karl regularly flowers in July. Use as a specimen, planted in groups for impact, or as a low-privacy screen. Green summer foliage turns golden-yellow in the fall. Zone 4.  

Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis)

Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon)

Blue oat grass is one of my favourites. Mix the blue foliage of oat grass with white flower perennials and shrubs for a stunning garden combination. Low-growing, cool-season grass to about 30 inches tall and wide, blue oat grass makes a beautiful hedge along a walkway or tucked in along an accent wall. Blue oat grass is not fabulous in the first growing season – it looks spindly, and I’m sure clients have wondered why I’ve given them this grass. However, in the second season, blue oat grass hits its stride. Big domes of blue foliage with tall panicles of beige seed heads grace this grass in summer. It does need full sun for the best results, and the soil can’t be too wet as it doesn’t like wet feet. Blue summer foliage stays blue into September. Zone 4.

Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon)

Switchgrass (Panicum)

Switchgrass is a native grass found in Ontario meadows. New switchgrass varieties have been introduced in the last couple of years, and they are inspiring to work in garden design. You can’t go wrong with switchgrass, this tough grass that can withstand harsh growing conditions. With the slightest breeze, switchgrass makes a swishing sound in the garden. An upright warm-season grass, meaning it likes warm temperatures to start growing, this grass can be late emerging if we have a cool spring. I would say ‘Heavy Metal’ is my favourite switchgrass. However, I like ‘Northwind,’ ‘Purple Tears,’ and ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and have placed them in many garden designs. Switchgrass ranges in height from ‘Cheyenne Sky’ about 3 feet tall, to ‘Purple Tears, about 4 feet tall, to ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Northwind’ about 5 feet tall. The taller varieties make great privacy screens, whereas the shorter varieties mix well in a naturalized garden. The foliage of most switchgrasses is grey-green to green in the summer, but their fall foliage is spectacular. ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and ‘Purple Tears’ fall foliage is bright maroon-red, whereas ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Northwind’ turn golden-buttery yellow as temperatures cool. All switchgrass have airy panicle seed heads, an excellent food source for birds when left standing in winter. Switchgrass is deer and rabbit-resistant. Most switchgrass has an upright habit, grows best in full sun, and requires little summer care once established. Zone 4.

Northwind Switchgrass
Purple Tears Switchgrass
Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

Sedge (Carex)

I like sedges. These dwarf beauties are perfect for any garden with a bit of shade. A cool-season grass, sedges tend to look great in all seasons, even in the spring after a cold winter. Try ‘Ice Dance’ sedge with its variegated creamy-white margins and deep green centers. It will grow to about 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide. It’s perfectly planted in a white flowering garden for added texture; place ‘Ice Dance’ in with taller hostas and ferns for interest, or tuck sedge in along the edge of an armour stone wall so it can peek out. Mass plant (more than five plants together) for the best results. It works well as a ground cover under tall trees. ‘Ice Dance’ is semi-evergreen. You should prune sedges in the spring once the chance of frost has passed, and only remove the tips with winter damage. Don’t trim back too far, or you will damage the plant. ‘Ice Dance’ needs a bit of shade from the hot afternoon sun to hold its color. Be sure to provide regular water, especially in hot summers. It’s also deer tolerant and suitable for Zone 5.

Ice Dance Sedge

Japanese Forest Grass or Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa)

A handsome grass with arching stems, perfect for a location with morning sun and afternoon shade. If you are looking for a striking grass for your gardens, look no further than Hakone grass. It is not a tall grass, only about 18” tall and wide; however, the arching foliage creates a feeling of movement in the garden. Perfect for softening the edges of a shaded border, it can be placed in a damp location by the edge of a pond or a great accent plant in a woodland setting. This grass is slow-growing, so be patient. I have my favourites. ‘Albostrista’ is a dense mound of variegated soft green and white foliage turning to shades of red and purple in the fall. ‘All Gold’ is a dense arching mound of bright yellow foliage with hues of red and purple in fall. ‘Aureola’ has variegated yellow and green foliage, turning red and purple in the fall. Zone 5.

 Albostrista Hakone Grass
All Gold Hakone Grass

Little Bunny Fountain Grass (Pennisetum ‘Little Bunny’)

Little Bunny is Hameln’s younger sister. A miniature version of the famous fountain grass, Little Bunny grows up to be about 18 inches tall and wide. In contrast, Hameln will be about 3 feet tall and wide. Both are perfect for a sunny garden as they like full sun and do best there. Pennisetum is a warm-season grass that needs a bit of heat to start in the spring. Bright green foliage in summer turns golden yellow in fall. Soft creamy-white bottlebrush flowers bloom in August and persist into the winter. They remind me of soft bunny tails that you want to touch. It is an excellent choice for a children’s garden. Little Bunny can be placed on a border as a hedge with taller plants behind it; it’s ideal for planting in a naturalized garden or planted in masses under taller shrubs or trees. Zone 5.

Little Bunny Fountain Grass
As you can see, there is an ornamental grass for every garden situation. Whether you love them or not, ornamental grasses have become a staple in today’s garden designs.   


Lexi Dearborn

The Gabby Gardener

May 2022

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