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Developing a Love for Ornamental Grasses

Updated: Jan 17

Photo: Pink Muhly Grass at Painters Greenhouse

I’ve been gardening on my own for about twelve years now, and it took me about half of those years to catch the ‘grass bug’. As a greenhouse owner, I saw increasing demand for grasses, and breeders were continually coming out with new cultivars (or even discovering new selections as our neighbor Terry Dalton did with Andropogon ‘Black Mountain’ in his backyard). As an environmentalist, I knew that native grasses in particular were essential for wildlife support. However, for some reason, it took me a while to appreciate them aesthetically - presumably as I learned more about a diversity of plants and experienced more landscapes, my gardener’s ‘eye’ evolved to see things differently than I did as a novice gardener.

One summer I attended several horticultural conferences, and I think that was when I really started noticing the endless options for how you could use grasses. One conference was held in a rural area where the buildings were surrounded by very natural looking pollinator gardens featuring a variety of native grass species. The texture and height contrasts provided by the grasses really made the gardens pop, and the sounds and visuals of the grasses swaying in the breeze added a lot of interest. I was also really surprised by the complexity of colors provided by the grass blades and seed heads - more muted than most flowers, but still quite vibrant! I had read enough to know that the incorporation of so many native grasses into the pollinator gardens would greatly increase the insect and bird diversity and support. I also noticed grasses as a beautiful and useful component in their rain gardens and water features, where they mixed well with the grass-like lines of irises and horsetail, and their deep root systems aided in water filtration and erosion control. In extreme contrast to this, the other conference was held in the center of a large city, where the modern architecture and minimalist design of the building was accentuated by mass plantings of bluestem and fountain grasses in vast swaths, and the steps and entries were bordered by giant planters using grasses as their key feature.

Safe to say, all of these beautiful and useful uses of grasses finally clicked for me, and I became a grass groupie! I’ve experimented with selling and planting a multitude of species and varieties in the years since, and now have a wide variety in my yard that I simply love! I thought I’d share a few of them and what makes them stand out to me - I hope that if you haven’t been very excited by grasses, this post will inspire you to try a few at home!

Photo: Hoffman Nursery, Switch Grass 'Shenandoah'

1. Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’

One of my favorite native grasses! There are many beautiful selections and cultivars of switch grass, but this one is hands down my favorite - the blades gradually become more red throughout the season and by fall are vibrantly colorful. The seed heads are airy and provide wonderful texture in addition to being an important food source for wintering birds. Another attribute is that this grass can tolerate some moisture, so if you have a lot of clay in your soil that can lead to poor drainage during rainy periods, this is a better option than many other grasses. It can stand alone, but looks best planted in groups of 3 or more, adding height, texture and colorful foliage to your perennial beds.

Photo: Pink Muhly Grass at Painters

2. Pink Muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris

Perhaps the most dramatic native grass we have. This is the powerhouse grass for fall - you have likely seen it planted in huge swaths, looking like a glowing pink cloud as the sun hits the airy seed heads. Each plant can get quite large, so you don’t have to plant a ton to have a big effect. I recommend 3 in a grouping, but even tucking one here and there will be beautiful.

Photo: Little Bluestem at Biltmore Photo: Hoffman Nursery, 'Prairie Blues' Little Bluestem Photo: Hoffman Nursery, 'The Blues' Little Bluestem

3. Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium

My favorite native grass for two reasons - first, I continue to be amazed at the variation of color in the blades of one plant, and second, as Audubon North Carolina states, “It’s like planting a living bird feeder”. The seed heads summer-winter that are such important bird food are profuse and provide a gorgeous texture when planted en masse - I love it as a medium height border! We have several selections we rotate growing - all are colorful and excellent for the birds!

Photo: Hoffman Nursery, Fountain Grass 'Hameln'

4. Fountain Grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’

I’m also loving ‘Ginger Love’, a new one for us this year with deep burgundy seed heads. Not a native, but fountain grasses are simply beautiful - it’s hard to beat their showy seed heads. I try to mostly use native grasses, but do have a few of these peppered into my landscape. Hameln is tougher than most other cultivars we’ve grown (we love Little Bunny and Burgundy Bunny but they aren’t as tolerant of our clay soil and wet winters). Plus, the fall color on this lovely grass is fantastic.

Photo: Hoffman Nursery, Corkscrew Rush

5. Corkscrew Rush, Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’

This native cultivar is really fun for both water gardens and containers. I like adding it to my year-round outdoor combo pots as it is evergreen, and it adds a lot of fun texture to the edges of my water garden!

Photo: Red Rooster Carex in a combo pot at Painters Photo: Hoffman Nursery, Carex 'Red Rooster'

6. Leatherleaf Sedge, Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’

This sedge is fun to hear folks discuss - many question if it’s dead due to the bronze color, but most people really like it. It’s hard to beat the shape - it forms such a lovely plume in containers in particular, and can get to be quite large so is impressive in large planters.

Important note: always leave your grasses and seed heads up through the winter - most grasses hold their shape nicely and provide a lot of visual interest (plus the old growth acts as a mulch/protection for the crown of the plant), but more importantly they provide essential wildlife food and shelter. You can cut back old growth in early to mid spring - I typically aim for around 5 inches of old growth (too short can kill the plant), which can help support the new blades as they emerge.

Want to see photos of unique and beautiful ways to use grasses in your landscape? I love this article by Houzz, which gives examples of using grasses as your main form of landscaping as well as how it can help with privacy screening.

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