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Landscaping With Ornamental Grasses: The Best of the Bunch
For nearly nonstop performance, strength, and visual impact, few plants compare to ornamental grasses. Don't 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'll 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.Continue to 2 of 13 below.
02 of 13
Botanical Name: Festuca glauca
Pronunication: fes-TEW-ka GLAW-ka
How low does fescue 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. Other popular ornamental fescues include:Continue to 3 of 13 below.
03 of 13
Mexican Feather Grass
Botanical name: Nassella tenuissima or Stipa tenuissima
Pronunciation: NAY-sell-uh or STEE-puh ten-yoo-ISS-ee-muh
You might have noticed Mexican feather grass 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.Continue to 4 of 13 below.
04 of 13
Japanese Forest Grass
Botanical Name: Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold'
A grass 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. Striking in containers or as a color accent in borders, especially with darker green plants or those with purple flowers. Hakonechloa requires regular watering: weekly, or more often when it gets hot temperatures.
Continue to 5 of 13 below.
Golden Japanese forest grass: Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola’
‘Nicolas’ Japanese forest grass: Hakonechloa macra ‘Nicholas’
05 of 13
Botanical name: Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'
Pronunication: miss-KANTH-us sy-NEN-sis
Also known as 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's 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.
Depending on what you pair zebra grass with, it can have an exotic, tropical look, and is striking planted near broad-leafed tropical plants with colorful flowers, like canna, ginger, hibiscus, and plumeria.Continue to 6 of 13 below.
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Botanical Name: Bambusa sp. or Phyllostachys sp.
Pronunciation: bam-BU-sa or fil-oh-STAY-kis
It's easy to forget that bamboo is actually a member of the grass family, but think about it: 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:
Continue to 7 of 13 below.
- Buddha's Belly
- Candy Stripe or Candy Cane
- Chinese Goddess
- Dwarf Fern Leaf
- Dwarf Whitestripe
- Mexican Weeping
- Tea Stick
- Tortoise Shell
- Yellow Groove
07 of 13
Purple Fountain Grass
Botanical name: Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'
Pronunciation: pen-i-SEE-tum se-TAY-see-um
Purple fountain grass has become an extremely popular landscaping plant in both residential and commercial settings. Why? Its striking, fountain-like form, reddish-purple color, and feather-like flowers 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's considered low-maintenance, that's 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.
The thing is, Pennisetum setaceum can almost be a year-round performer if you treat it right. When it starts to spread out and the feather-flowers resemble wheat, it's time to dead-head the grass. More detailed instructions can be found in How to Groom Ornamental Grasses. 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.Continue to 8 of 13 below.
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New Zealand Flax
Botanical name: Phormium tenax
Pronunication: FOR-mi-um ten-AX
Like fountain grass, New Zealand flax 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, Phormium 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:
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- Cream Delight
- Dwarf Variegated
- Evening Glow
- Apricot Queen
- Jack Spratt
- Rainbow Maiden
- Rainbow Queen
- Platt's Black
- Rainbow Chief
- Rainbow Sunrise
- Yellow Wave
09 of 13
Japanese Blood Grass
Botanical Name: Imperata cylindrica
Pronunciation: im-pur-AY-tuh sill-IN-drih-kuh
This colorful red, yellow, and green grass is a 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 soil is too dry, it can fade away or die. Despite its beauty, some regions consider it invasive.
Also known as cogongrass, cogon grassContinue to 10 of 13 below.
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Blue Oat Grass
Botanical Name: Helictotrichon sempervirens
Pronunication: hel-ik-toe-TRY-kon sem-per-VEER-enz
Also known as 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's established. It's great for rock gardens, with succulents, native landscaping, borders, and mass plantings.Continue to 11 of 13 below.
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Pink Muhly Grass
Botanical Name: Muhlenbergia capillaris
Pronunciation: Mew- len-ber-jee-uh kap-pill-lair-riss
Also known as sweetgrass, gulf muhlygrass, mist grass and hairawn muhly. 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.Continue to 12 of 13 below.
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Botanical Name: Cyperus papyrus
Pronunciation: sye-PEER-uss puh-PYE-rus
Some experts call these African natives grasses; others refer to them as grass-like plants. They fit 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 don't experience freezing temperatures, it is a perennial.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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Black Mondo Grass
Botanical Name: Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'
Pronunciation: Oh-fee-oh-poe-gawn plan-ih-skay-pus
Black mondo grass 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 green/purple, and looks striking when paired with light lavender, chartreuse, or lime-colored plants. It likes partial to full sun and moist, well-drained soil.