Ornamental grasses can add interest to beds and borders, soften walkways, and stand out as garden focal points with their billowy texture, attractive foliage and design versatility.
Many grasses produce delicate seed heads, designed so that seeds will be carried by wind to colonize neighboring areas. For this reason, ornamental grasses can take over in the garden and surrounding wild areas. It’s best to check with your local nursery or native plant society before introducing a new species to your landscape. When in doubt, go with a native grass and you’ll help support wildlife as well.
Here are a dozen ideas for using ornamental grasses to enhance your fall garden.
Plant a Meadow Garden
Create a wild, romantic look in your backyard with a naturalistic meadow planting. Including native grasses and perennials in the mix — and allowing them to go to seed — will also help support populations of wild birds and pollinators. In this garden in the Pennsylvania countryside, drifts of ‘Cloud Nine’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’) mingle with ‘Oehme’ muskingum sedge (Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and other wildflowers.
Add Texture to Garden Beds
Ornamental grasses are the ultimate mixers in garden beds. With a variety of textures from wispy to rigid, they can offer a pleasing contrast planted with
shrubs and perennials. Here, the slightly wiry texture of orange New Zealand sedge (Carex testacea) stands out against a soft, low-growing mound of blue catmint (Nepeta sp.) and the smooth form of an empty ceramic container.
Ornamental grasses with cloud-like textures, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and fountain grass, contrast well with clipped shrubs, bold agaves and various perennials.
Soften Modern Architecture
Fuzzy grass plumes and carefree perennials can be a great complement to the stark, clean lines of contemporary architecture. Planting a strip of grasses and black-eyed Susan right up against floor-to-ceiling windows highlights the composition from both inside and outside the house.
Use Tall Grasses as a Screen
Where you don’t need a thick hedge to hide a carport or provide privacy, plant ornamental grasses as a screen for a lighter, airier look. Choose varieties that are on the taller side — such as ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), which can reach 5 feet — and plant multiple, staggered rows to create a divider between garden rooms.
Bring Movement to Borders
With the slightest breeze, grasses with long stems, feathery plumes and delicate seed heads are set in motion. For contrast in garden borders, intersperse airy grasses with sturdy shrubs, evergreens and succulents. Here, ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’) has delicate flag-like seed heads, which shimmer against Icee Blue yellow-wood (Podocarpus elongatus ‘Monmal’), nearly black Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ and red-flowering kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos ‘Red Cross’).
Replace your Lawn
Ditch your high-maintenance lawn and replace it with a low-water ornamental grass. A number of Carex varieties are a good choice for a lawn substitute, as they require substantially less water than a traditional turf-mix. Skip mowing entirely or cut back a few times a year with a traditional lawn mower to keep the grass more cropped.
Sanddune sedge (Carex pansa) is best for gardens of the western U.S. and British Columbia, Canada. For eastern and central U.S. regions, check out Pennsylvania sedge (C. pensylvanica). For southern U.S. areas, try sand sedge (C. perdentata).
Use Grasses as a Foundation Plant
Traditionally, one might use an evergreen shrub planted along the foundation to help visually anchor a home in the garden. Billowy grasses offer an unexpected alternative that’s just as effective. Choose an ornamental grass that stands at least 3 to 4 feet tall, such as the purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) pictured here, to anchor the home. (The ‘Rubrum’ variety doesn’t reseed — as other varieties do — making it a more garden-friendly choice.)
Layer Grasses for a Lush, Billowing Look
For a big impact along a walkway or border planting, include a mix of grasses in small, medium and large sizes. In this backyard on Bainbridge Island, Washington, clumps of 6-foot-tall Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ make up the backdrop, gold mounds of ‘Evergold’ sedge(Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’) form the middle layer, and low-growing black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) borders the walkway.
Create a Mini Meadow
Capture the wild beauty of the countryside with a pint-size meadow in your urban or suburban backyard. The key to this working well in a small space, and reading as a meadow rather than a traditional border planting, is to include a healthy variety of ornamental grasses and perennials and to plant them in a carefree design.
Plant a Border to Soften Hardscape
Allow grasses to billow over the hard edges of patios, planters and walkways to soften the space and to make it feel more casual and inviting. This works particularly well if you plant ornamental grasses right up against hardscape and choose varieties with cloud-like forms and arching stems, such as dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’), pictured.
Note: In some areas, ‘Hameln’ can be considered invasive. Check with your local nursery before planting and remove seed heads before seeds reach maturity.
Add a Focal Point
With eye-catching forms, colors and textures, ornamental grasses can hold their own when planted as a focal point in containers or in the landscape. In this sloped garden outside Seattle, a single specimen of purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) planted as a focal point at the top of a stairway looks stunning, even from a distance.
Plant a Grassy Stairway
For a more natural-looking stairway, intersperse treads with low-growing grasses. Choose varieties that are low enough to easily step over and tough enough to handle light foot traffic. Blue fescue (Festuca glauca) and low-growing sedges would be good options. Here, grassy-looking lilyturf (Liriope muscari) is planted between poured concrete steps.
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