Whether you need a plant for a container, to block an unsightly view, or to make a statement in the garden, ornamental grasses can do it. With so many options, this category of plants is so versatile and they really show their value this time of year and into fall. These are some of our favorites that we come back to time and time again.
Dwarf Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ or ‘Little Bunny’)
In spring lush, green foliage cascades out before the plumes of light tan flowers emerge in summer. Foliage turns a golden orange in fall and fades to tan in winter. Although deciduous, the flower stalks and foliage will remain through early winter and adds a nice texture in the winter garden. Hameln gets to be about 2 feet wide and 2-3 feet tall but if you need something smaller, Little Bunny only reaches 12 inches tall and wide. Both work well in containers and beds and are drought tolerant once established.
Evercolor Eversheen Sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Eversheen’)
This is one of many sedges that we love. The vibrant grass-like foliage has green margins with a yellow center stripe and is evergreen. As plants mature, small seedheads may develop on spikes above the foliage. These are great for shady spots but can also handle some sun in our pacific northwest climate. Due to their small size (12-15 inches tall and 18-24 inches wide) sedges work well in containers and you can find different varieties with different colored variegations. Some other notable Carex includes Evergold, Everest, Frosty Curls, and Everillo.
Slough Sedge (Carex obnupta)
This native sedge deserves its own spot on the list. Slough Sedge is perfect for rain gardens and thrives in our rainy pacific northwest. The evergreen foliage is deep green and has dark brown seedheads. It likes wet areas and can do well in both shade and sun. It gets to be 1-2 feet tall and wide.
Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’)
If you’re wanting to make a statement or need some height in your garden, this grass reaches 6 feet tall with its bloom stalks but stays at about 2 feet wide so it can fit in most sunny locations. In spring foliage emerges green followed by tall feathery flower stalks in summer that hang on through fall and into winter. Flower stalks start off reddish brown and fade into golden tan in fall. Not only does this add height but the tall stalks catch the breeze creating movement.
Giant Feather Grass (Stipa gigantea)
If you’re wanting a specimen grass this is the one. This structural grass has lush green foliage that reaches 18 inches tall with seed heads that get to be 6 to 8 feet tall that branch out all around the mound of foliage. If you’re able to find a spot it can be backlit by the sun, it really becomes a stunner. While considered semi-evergreen to evergreen, it can be cut back after it’s established itself to maintain a more tidy appearance. It likes full sun and is drought tolerant once established.
All Gold Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’)
Another option for shady spots, All Gold Japanese Forest Grass brings a pop of color to darker areas of the garden with its golden yellow strap-like foliage. It gets to be 1-2 feet tall and wide and likes filtered sun and partial shady spots where it can be protected from intense sun. Keep soil moist but not soggy. While it does have seed head blooms, they are small and insignificant. Japanese Forest Grass looks great along pathways and in the front of perennials beds where it can put on its show.
Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon)
These small groundcover-like grasses grow in small mounds in partial sun. Dwarf Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonica ‘Nanus’) has dark green foliage and only gets to be 4-6 inches tall and wide. They work well to edge a planting bed or to place between paver stepping stones. Another one we use often is Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’). Like the name suggests, its foliage is a deep purple-black color which contrasts with the light purple flowers in summer. It gets to be about 5-6 inches tall and wide. This is a great one for planting next to something with chartreuse foliage if you want a bold look. Both Dwarf and Black Mondo Grasses are evergreen. After the first year of establishment, you can cut back Black Monday Grass in early spring to remove any tattered growth if desired.
These aren’t considered ornamental grasses but provide a similar effect in the garden so they’re worth mentioning if you’re wanting a combo of colorful flowers and the texture of grasses in one plant. These include Daylily (Hemerocallis), Montbretia (Crocosmia), Hot Poker (Kniphofia), Lilyturf (Liriope), and Ornamental Onion (Allium).
With ornamental grasses it’s always a good idea to check with your local state or county to verify that something isn’t invasive as some spread very rapidly and can quickly take over your garden but I can guarantee you’ll be able to find one (or many) that will work for your space, climate, and aesthetic preferences.
Do you have a favorite ornamental grass that you find yourself using time and time again? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!