Paul's Plant Picks Week 7: Ornamental Grasses

I first fell in love with ornamental grasses in the mid-80s, and my affection for them continues to this day. Not just because they’re beautiful, but also because they’re tough as nails and about as low maintenance as any plant on the planet, so much so that they practically thrive on neglect.

My first planting consisted of five, solid-green Maiden grasses (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’), which was about all you could find back in those days. I stuck them in the ground in May, watered them well throughout the summer and occasionally in the fall, then cut them back to about six inches the following February. That’s basically how you care for ornamental grasses – water now and then, and give them an annual haircut. Most, but not all, do best in full sun in a spot with decent soil, and I’ll let you decide whether they need fertilizer or not (I’m in the “not” camp).

Thankfully, the list of choices among ornamental grasses available these days has grown considerably. Here are a few worth considering.

 Among the Maiden grasses, there are variegated forms such as ‘Adagio ‘and ‘Morning Light’, both of which  tend to grow about four-feet tall and wide, and ‘Zebrinus’, which will get a foot bigger both ways.

Members of the Pennisetum or Fountain grass family are especially showy in mass plantings. ‘Hameln’ (two-feet tall and wide) and ‘Karley Rose’ (three-feet tall and wide) are two popular choices, and you can’t go wrong with either.  

Panicums – the Switch grasses – are another great group. The variety ‘Northwind’ is a spectacular choice. It grows to about five-feet tall but only two-feet wide, making it what I consider a vertical masterpiece in the garden as a specimen or en masse. It also grows well in wet or boggy sites. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ is another solid choice given its namesake foliage color which appears late in the season.

Pampas grass – Cortaderia selloana – is perhaps the most popular of all the ornamental grasses in this area. And lucky for us, it’s not invasive (although in several states, notably California and Oregon, it’s considered a noxious weed). With eight-foot plumes towering above the five-foot foliage, this is a real attention getter.

Calamagrostis acutiflora, better known as ‘Karl Foerster’ Feather Reed Grass, has become hugely popular in the last decade or so, and with good reason. It grows upright, and while its foliage grows to only two-feet tall and wide, its plumes rise up to nearly six feet.

Chasmanthium latifolium – Northern Sea Oats – tolerates a good deal of shade, and while it’s beautiful with or without its distinctive seed heads, I should warn you that unlike other ornamental grasses, it’s not sterile, and has a tendency to reseed.

There are also a number of smaller grasses worth considering. Mexican Feather Grass is about as wispy as grasses get. Japanese Forest Grass is a must for shady spots. And Japanese Blood Grass offers a two-tone (red and green) color combination that’s hard to beat.

If you haven’t already discovered the world of ornamental grasses, you owe it to yourself to ponder a place in your landscape where one – or a dozen – might be just right. And if you can’t find such a spot, remember that most of them grow quite nicely in containers.


Click HERE to see images of some of Paul's favorites!