Cre­ate drama with grasses

Or­na­men­tal grasses are a key com­po­nent of gar­den de­sign. Here’s our pick of the best

Garden Answers (UK) - - Contents -

Or­na­men­tal grasses are fan­tas­ti­cally ver­sa­tile. They add move­ment and sound when their slen­der stems sway in the breeze, and as the flow­ers and fo­liage fade in au­tumn they turn a rich pal­ette of soft browns and golds, with their in­tri­cate seed­heads cap­tur­ing the morn­ing dew and first frosts. In re­cent years they’ve be­come as­so­ci­ated with spec­tac­u­lar prairie-style plant­ing schemes where they’re planted in large drifts and blocks, but you don’t need a meadow to cre­ate the same feel. Be­sides, they’re very much at home among tra­di­tional herba­ceous bor­der schemes, or even in pa­tio containers. Grasses come in all shapes and sizes: from low-grow­ing, com­pact plants per­fect for path edg­ing to the tow­er­ing spec­i­mens that can be used as a screen or fo­cal point. So, what­ever your gar­den size, style or lo­ca­tion, there’s sure to be a grass for you.


Form­ing low-grow­ing hum­mocks of grey-blue, nee­dle-thin leaves, this com­pact grass is per­fect for grow­ing in pots and its ev­er­green fo­liage pro­vides struc­ture for con­tainer dis­plays all year round. Flower spikes ap­pear in sum­mer and fade to brown. Comb through the plant in late win­ter to re­move any dead fo­liage. Plant in spring with dainty white vi­o­las and dwarf white nar­cis­sus, then fol­low with white or pur­ple sum­mer bed­ding and peren­ni­als such as salvias, Cos­mos bip­in­na­tus ‘Sonata Se­ries’ and Chaenos­toma cor­da­tum (ba­copa) ‘Snowflake’. H30cm (12in) S25cm (10in)

2 BEST FOR MOVE­MENT Hordeum ju­ba­tum

Fox­tail bar­ley is a short-lived peren­nial, but it can be treated as an an­nual and is easy to grow from seed. It will self-sow in free-drain­ing soil in a warm, sunny po­si­tion and pro­duces del­i­cate pale pink, sil­very, bar­ley-like flow­ers. Plant in drifts and the flow­ers will sway in the breeze cre­at­ing at­trac­tive waves. Plants thrive in gravel gar­dens or at the front of a bor­der where it can be in­ter­planted among dainty plants that have an airy qual­ity, such as Shirley pop­pies, love-in-a-mist or Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis ‘Lol­lipop’, a shorter-grow­ing cul­ti­var. H60cm (2ft) S30 (12in)

3 BEST FOR WIN­TER STRUC­TURE Mis­cant­hus sinen­sis ‘Malepar­tus’

This ma­jes­tic plant has fine arch­ing green leaves striped white down the cen­tre and spec­tac­u­lar pur­plish-brown silky flow­ers that glis­ten in sum­mer. Fo­liage turns a lovely rus­set brown in au­tumn and holds its shape into late win­ter when it can be cut down to the ground. Plant in blocks or drifts to form nat­u­ral screens or as spec­i­men plants in a bor­der to add strong ver­ti­cal ac­cents. Needs a sunny, open po­si­tion and well-drained soil. H2m (6½ft) S1.2m (4ft)

4 BEST FOR COLOUR Im­per­ata cylin­drica ‘Rubra’

For strik­ing colour it’s hard to beat Ja­panese blood grass, with its nar­row up­right leaf blades that are green at the base then blood red and deep bur­gundy to­wards the tip. Back­lit, the leaves glow like flick­er­ing flames. It’s not com­pletely hardy, so plant it in a sunny spot in well-drained soil and mulch in au­tumn or grow in a con­tainer and bring un­der cover in win­ter. Plant with he­le­ni­ums and rud­beckia or, for a dra­matic con­trast, along­side blue-flow­ered hardy plum­bago (Cer­atostigma plumbagi­noides). H40cm (16in) S30cm (12in)

5 BEST FOR FLUFFY FLOW­ERS Pen­nise­tum vil­lo­sum

A grace­ful plant with fine slen­der leaves and large, fluffy, cater­pil­lar-like flow­ers of whitish-green that take on pur­ple tints as they ma­ture. It’s a ten­der peren­nial that’s of­ten grown as an an­nual, but it may sur­vive win­ter in a mild area. Plant in a sunny, well-drained lo­ca­tion and add a mulch to pro­tect its roots from the cold. It works well edg­ing borders, but also makes a good con­tainer plant, and can then be brought un­der cover in late au­tumn to pro­tect it from the worst of the win­ter cold and wet. H and S60cm (2ft)

6 BEST FOR HEIGHT Stipa gi­gan­tea

This stat­uesque grass has a del­i­cate, trans­par­ent qual­ity. Clumps of slen­der leaves grow to about 60cm (2ft) tall, then pro­duce tow­er­ing stems topped with del­i­cate oat-like flow­ers from mid­sum­mer. Once the seeds have been shed, the seed­heads con­tinue to look good well into win­ter. Plant so it can catch the sun and its seed­heads will shimmer like gold. Clumps are hardy but need full sun and a light, well-drained soil. The leaves have sharp edges so wear gloves and long sleeves when han­dling. Comb through the plant in spring to re­move dead fo­liage. H2.5m (8ft) S1.2m (4ft)

7 BEST FOR SCREEN­ING Cala­m­a­grostis acu­ti­flora ‘Karl Fo­er­ster’

The erect habit of this stiff grass makes it per­fect for use as a screen­ing plant – po­si­tion it in rows to cre­ate an un­usual hedge. It’s one of the ear­li­est grasses to start into growth in spring when slen­der green leaves and stems emerge fol­lowed by wispy, buff-coloured flow­ers. It hap­pily grows in full sun or light shade in most soils as long as they’re well-drained. The slen­der col­umns of bleached, straw-like stems stand well through­out win­ter. H1.8m (6ft) S60cm (2ft)

8 BEST FOR GROUND­COVER Hakonechloa macra ‘Aure­ola’

Planted in large drifts at the edge of a path or be­neath trees or shrubs, this won­der­ful low-grow­ing or­na­men­tal grass cre­ates a soft floaty feel with its tum­bling cas­cades of striped yel­low and green leaves. Plant in well-drained soil in full sun or part shade – the leaves can de­velop red tints when grown in full sun. Cut back to the base in spring. H35cm (14in) S40cm (16in)

9 BEST FOR SEED­HEADS Chas­man­thium lat­i­foilum

A rarely grown grass that orig­i­nates from North Amer­ica where it’s also known as north­ern sea oats. Its loose clumps of broad leaves re­sem­ble bam­boo, ac­com­pa­nied by masses of un­usual flat flower heads that look as though they’re been pressed by an iron. The whole plant dries to a lovely rich rus­set-brown colour in au­tumn. Cut back stems to ground level in early spring. It needs fer­tile soil that’s moist but well-drained in full sun. H1m (3ft 3in) S60cm (2ft)

10 BEST FOR STRIPES Mis­cant­hus sinen­sis ‘Ze­bri­nus’

An up­right grass with a foun­tain shape thanks to its el­e­gant arch­ing stems and fo­liage. Its ‘ze­bra’ name comes from the cream hor­i­zon­tal stripes across its green leaves. This var­ie­ga­tion is tem­per­a­ture de­pen­dent and usu­ally ap­pears in mid­sum­mer, but the leaves can scorch in full sun, so plant in light shade. In hot sum­mers, silky, fin­ger­like, cop­pery-pink flower spikes can ap­pear. The fo­liage turns a tan colour in au­tumn. Cut down in late win­ter to al­low new growth to ap­pear. H1.2m (4ft) S45cm (18in)

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