For nearly nonstop performance, strength, and visual impact, few plants compare to ornamental grasses. Do not confuse ornamentals with the types of grass used for lawns, though. Ornamental grasses are meant to grow—not be cut or mown—and most are not used as ground covers.
Once you start landscaping with ornamental grasses you will be amazed by how many varieties, sizes, shapes, and colors are available. Also, consider using an ornamental grass in a container garden, using the thriller, filler, and spiller theory.
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How low does blue fescue (Festuca glauca) grow? Well, not as low as closely sheared turf grass. Actually, some fescues are grown as lawns, like the clumping red fescue. To add more confusion, turf fescues are classified as tall fescues, the seeds of which were brought to the United States from Europe in the early 19th century.
But in the world of ornamental grasses, fescues are considered low-growers and are often used as edgings, borders and ground covers. Popular ornamental fescues include:
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Mexican Feather Grass
You might have noticed Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima or Stipa tenuissima) showing up in gardens and in areas all over town. Mexican feather grass is even grown on green roofs. The seeds are at the very tips of the featherlike "blades"—the stuff that blows in even the most gentle of winds. And it spreads. It can show up all over the yard, in sidewalk cracks, and down the street in neighbors' yards.
Mexican feather grass survives in dry conditions, can be cut back—and it thrives. Some native plant organizations consider it invasive. If you can contain it, this grass is still quite lovely, especially when it blows in the wind.
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Japanese Forest Grass
Hakonechloa macra "All Gold" grass is from areas around Mt. Hakone in Japan, popular for its beautiful and exotic clumping habit. Cultivars have variegated or lime (golden) leaves. This deciduous grass can be identified by its slender stems, which look like tiny bamboo. It is striking in containers or as a color accent in borders, especially with darker green plants or those with purple flowers. It requires regular watering, weekly, or more often during hotter temperatures.
Other varieties include:
- Golden Japanese forest grass: Hakonechloa macra "Aureola"
- "Nicolas" Japanese forest grass: Hakonechloa macra "Nicholas"
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Zebra grass is known as Miscanthus sinensis "Zebrinus" botanically. It is also sometimes called porcupine grass (Miscanthis sinensis "Strictus"). This green and pale yellow upright beauty dies back in winter, then comes back strong in the spring, whether or not it has been trimmed. It can grow 5 feet or taller and about 5 feet wide, even if you prune it during its growing season, which is spring and summer in the Western United States.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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It is easy to forget that bamboo (Bambusa sp. or Phyllostachys sp.) is actually a member of the grass family. Bamboo grows upright and spreads quickly (sometimes too much), and requires a regular watering schedule during the first growing season to establish a deep, extensive root system. A native of China, bamboo was introduced to the Western world sometime after the mid-19th century.
Types of bamboo that are popular for residential landscaping include:
- Buddha's Belly
- Candy Stripe or Candy Cane
- Chinese Goddess
- Dwarf Fern Leaf
- Dwarf Whitestripe
- Mexican Weeping
- Tea Stick
- Tortoise Shell
- Yellow Groove
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Purple Fountain Grass
Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum "Rubrum") has become an extremely popular landscaping plant in both residential and commercial settings. It has a striking, fountain-like form, reddish-purple color, and feather-like flowers that make it appealing from a distance and for up-close viewing.
Pennisetum setaceum's size is fairly predictable—usually 2 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide. While it is considered low-maintenance, that is often because gardeners and landscape maintenance workers cut it to about a foot high when it starts to get dry looking in late fall—and they resemble cropped bales of hay.
Pennisetum setaceum can almost be a year-round performer if you treat it right. When it starts to spread out and the feathered flowers resemble wheat, it is time to deadhead the grass. Purple fountain grass looks striking next to lime green and silver grasses and plants like oat grass or sweet potato vine. It is also deer resistant and is drought tolerant once established. It is especially beautiful in fall container arrangements and autumn gardens.
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New Zealand Flax
Like fountain grass, New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) has become increasingly popular in residential and commercial applications. Possessing a similar deep-red, purplish, bronze color, New Zealand flax's leaves are more broad or strap-like than the finer fountain grass. It also tends to get taller, reaching a height of 5 feet or more, and about 4 feet wide. Although not an easy task, it will need to be de-clumped every few years. Look at it this way—after you have separated the clumps and replanted them elsewhere in the garden, you will have gained new plants for free.
Smaller or different variations of New Zealand flax include:
- Cream Delight
- Dwarf Variegated
- Evening Glow
- Apricot Queen
- Jack Spratt
- Rainbow Maiden
- Rainbow Queen
- Platt's Black
- Rainbow Chief
- Rainbow Sunrise
- Yellow Wave
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Japanese Blood Grass
Imperata cylindrica is a colorful red, yellow, and green grass that is native to Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, India, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Upright clumps spread slowly underground by runners. It grows best in damp, rich soil and likes moisture during the hottest months. If the soil is too dry, it can fade away or die. Despite its beauty, some regions consider it invasive. It is also called cogon grass.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Blue Oat Grass
Blue oat grass goes by the botanical names Helictotrichon sempervirens and Avena candida. This grass grows to about 3 to 6 feet in height and 1 to 3 feet in width. It can be identified by its fountainlike silver-blue blades with a light beige dome that appears in the summer. Blue oat grass likes full sun and weekly water. It can be drought tolerant after it is established. It is great for rock gardens with succulents, native landscaping, borders, and mass plantings.
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Pink Muhly Grass
Pink muhly grass is also known as sweetgrass, gulf muhlygrass, mist grass, hairawn muhly, and the botanical name, Muhlenbergia capillaris. It is named after botanist/chemist/mineralogist Henry Muhlenberg. This ornamental grass is admired for its fall- and winter-blooming pink flowers or featherlike plumes. In landscape design, muhly grass looks best in large or mass clumps in perennial borders or native gardens, where its wispy pink blooms create more impact.
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Cyperus papyrus is sometimes called an African native grass or a grass-like plant. Papyrus fits nicely into the ornamental grass category. These exotic beauties can grow up to 72 inches or more, like moist soil, and thrive in a water garden. In regions that do not experience freezing temperatures, it is a perennial.
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Black Mondo Grass
Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus "Nigrescens") only grows to about 8 inches high but is a spreader making it an ideal groundcover. Not actually black, it is more of a dark greenish-purple, it looks striking when paired with light lavender, chartreuse, or lime-colored plants. It likes partial to full sun and moist, well-drained soil.