A Guide to Ornamental Garden Grasses

Add color and style to your garden space with this guide to planting ornamental grasses. 

Blue Green Mix of Ornamental Grasses

Blue Green Mix of Ornamental Grasses

This contrasting mix of blue green grasses and foliage plants makes a decorative summer display for garden borders.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

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Adding various ornamental grasses to your garden is a simple way to give your outdoor space a decorative touch. Knit together a range of different grasses to form a spectacular textured border, or mix and match with complementary perennials for a colorful display of flower and foliage forms. The graceful leaves and delicate flowers shimmer and glow when backlit by morning or evening sun, so try to place your border to capture this effect.

Grasses range from lofty giants that stretch up over 6 feet or more to tiny tufts that barely reach ankle height with a whole variety of sizes in between. Weave a selection of tall types in swathes through a large border using prairie-style planting, or use them to form a backdrop in a smaller space. Also integrate evergreen and deciduous grasses for year-round appeal. In the summer the wisps of delicate flowers will appear in a range of colors and contrast with the bold shapes of the leaves. In the winter many deciduous types lose their summer colors but retain their structure, creating interest at a time of year when there is little else on display.

The majority of grasses need a sunny site to thrive, so choose the brightest spot in your garden for the best display. Most species also like free-draining conditions and will withstand periods of drought once established. Ideally, plant them in the spring to allow the root systems a full season to develop before winter. Although most grasses prefer sun, Deschampsia will tolerate some shade and thrives in a range of soil types. 

In large borders, weave together a selection of medium-sized and large grasses, such as MiscanthusCalamagrostisDeschampsia, and Panicum species with contrasting perennials, such as Eupatorium, asters, and Verbena bonariensis.

In smaller gardens or at the front of large borders, try a mix ofCalamagrostis brachytricha, with its beautiful late summer, featherlike plumes, the wispy Stipa tenuissima, and silvery-blue Helictotrichon. Match these with rusty-orange achilleas, cream Astrantia major and dark red Sedum Autumn Joy. Also use the flowing form of Anemanthele lessoniana at the edge of a border to add a sense of movement as it spills over a path or patio.

All the border grasses suit gravel gardens, which also make good seedbeds for annuals. Sprinkle the seeds of Briza minor, with its dainty, dangling, summer flowers, through a gravel border for a natural effect; it will self-seed thereafter, repeating the effect year after year. Other annuals to try to include Lagurus ovatus, or bunny tails, which features furry little pompon blooms, and Setaria macrostachya, with its caterpillar-like flowerheads.

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