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Using Ornamental Grasses in Your Garden

March 9, 2020

Written by Dave G.

Older gardeners will remember a time when ‘grass’ was just that green stuff you had to mow every week, but for today’s gardens it means so much more. With their unique look, their easy habits, and with many, varied types available, grasses are a treasure trove of great ideas for making your garden more beautiful and extending the choices you have for the question, “What should I grow in this spot?

The best advice for choosing grasses is this – think of them as shrubs. In other words, forget for a moment what they are, and look at them as shapes and forms of different sizes. After all, that’s what we do regularly in choosing a plant of a certain size and shape, so it makes sense to do the same for anything we grow, without getting hung up on exactly what it is we are choosing. Once you make that mental leap, gardening with grasses becomes a whole lot easier. In our section of ‘Ornamental Grasses’ we have done the same thing. There you won’t just find true grasses, but a range of ‘grass-like’ plants, such as Yucca. From a practical standpoint, if it looks like a grass. . .

Grasses are dynamically visual, not just seasonally, because one of the great beauty of grasses is the way they move in the breezes. More than any other plant, when the breeze blows, grasses talk to us in their rustling whispers. A sheltered spot to catch a few private minutes, shielded from the wider world, will be all the more restful if the shelter talks gently to you, calming your worries and soothing you as only plants can do.

Let’s explore different garden functions, and see how we can use the unique textures of grasses to give a different spin to basic garden needs:

Grasses for Edging

Moving from one surface to another – usually from a bed to a lawn or paved area – is most effective with a transition element. That ‘s a complex way of describing the gardener’s habit of planting a row of short plants to define the outline of a bed. Edging can be done in two distinct ways. The most straightforward is to plant a row of just one type of plant. But since the essence of edging plants is their size – short – a mixed arrangement of shorter plants can be just as effective. A combination of low shrubs and small grasses will give your edging an informal look, which may be exactly the way you want your garden to look.

Edging needs to be in scale with the areas it defines. This is something that is often overlooked, and tiny plants under 12 inches tall, that would be perfect in a small city courtyard, disappear completely when used to edge a large shrub bed at the back of your garden. Plants between 2 and 3 feet tall make perfect edges for larger areas, and there are a host of grasses in that size range.

I tried to stay away from specific plants in this piece, but here I can’t resist a plug for Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). This tough native grass is the perfect size for edging medium to large beds, and since it grows in all soils, and even takes a little shade, you can enjoy its fabulous late-season cloud of glowing pink almost anywhere.

Grasses for Accents

Every garden space needs accent plants, or it will soon become a featureless sea of green. Both shape and color make effective accents, and you can find both these things in grasses. The classic (and easiest) accent grass is Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), and you can’t go wrong with it. Among grass-like plants, any Yucca in flower is a striking accent, and those with golden foliage do the same thing all year round. Accents can be strong vertical lines, like the Reed Grass, but splashes of color have the same effect, and many grasses come in blue or gold, so they work perfectly. The unique cloud effect of many grasses is an accent in itself, compared to the heavy greens of most garden shrubs.

Grasses for Hedges

When you grow grasses as a hedge you create a whole new kind of hedge. A classic hedge is static, a constant wall of green that makes a garden element that never changes. Grasses make a very different kind of dynamic hedge – one that looks different, depending on the season. At first you might reject that idea, but think about it – is your need for a hedge year-round, or do you only need one for the time you use your garden most? If you don’t need privacy for 365 days of the year, but you do want to define an area of your garden seasonally, then a grass hedge could be just what you want.

While you might automatically want a hedge to be at least 6 feet tall – and there are grasses that will do that – you can achieve the same sense of enclosure with plants just a couple of feet tall, emphasizing the idea of a hedge, without the big physical presence of a permanent one.

Grasses for Large Areas

Grasses really come into their own when you have large spaces to fill. When you think about it, that is what a mowed lawn is, of course, but with the right grass you don’t need to mower! Mass plantings of ornamental grasses have become a signature of modern gardens, and no wonder. Their range of colors and sizes, and the unique visual effect sweeps of swaying grasses bring, make them top choices for filling big spaces in striking ways.

The invasive nature of some grasses gave them a bad name in the past, but we have wisely moved away from them, into clump-forming grasses that stay where we plant them, and don’t start taking over. Mind you, some invasive grasses are very beautiful, and they can find a place in a larger garden exactly where you want to fill a large space. They will soon become a solid expanse that just needs an annual ‘chop-down’ to keep it perfect, and their spreading nature means just a few starter plants will fill a big space in a couple of seasons.

Now You Can Choose

With this new way of thinking about them, now you can see where in your garden you want to use grasses, and to what effect. Now you have a clearer picture of what you need, and you can look at the range available and make smart choices. You will find that going from function to particular plant, rather than the other way round (“Ooh, what a pretty plant – where can I plant it?”) will help you make better, more effective choices, and give every plant in your garden greater value.

Comments 4 comments

  1. March 27, 2020 by Robert Bye

    Hello: I am having a 3 gallon Karl Foerster ornamental grass plant shipped to me in a few days but cannot find in your planting guide how to best plant these. Can you please help me with this or tell me where to find this information? Thank you.

    1. March 28, 2020 by Dave G

      You can find details of this grass here – we are out of stock right now, but if you need more once you see how great a plant this is, just click for a notification. As for planting, it’s like any shrub – remove from pot, plant at same depth (although with grasses they can go an inch or so deeper) and water well.

  2. May 29, 2020 by Bill Dougherty

    We need something for privacy. Our town recently cleared a public trail behind our property. We would like something that grows very tall and green year round. It can be invasive since it is no where near our home property. We are in 6a planting zone. Thank you.

    1. May 29, 2020 by Dave G

      Grasses are not suitable, unless you only wanted summer/fall privacy. Take a look at our foundation plants and evergreen trees – lots of suitable plants there.