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Gardening With Ornamental Grasses
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

June 3, 2001

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Blue fescue and Japanese blood grass with fountain grass in Liz Klose's front garden.
Photo credit: Yvonne Cunnington
Second picture: Morning Light Miscanthus in background with Echinacea and Anise Hyssop in the author's garden.

If lush green lawn is what you envision when you hear the word "grass", a visit to the garden of Liz and Gerald Klose is a dazzling eye opener. In the front yard of their home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., impressive swaths of ornamental grasses whisper in the wind. Giant miscanthus specimens anchor a bed that curves from the street up the side of the property. 
Yes, there are trees, shrubs and perennials, but what stands out are waves of grasses—billowing fountain grass, gracefully arching maiden grass, stately feather reed grass, dramatic red blood grass—edged with neat hummocks of steely blue fescue. In the back garden, grasses lend their elegance to a sweeping border of perennials punctuated by small trees and upright evergreens.
"There aren’t many plants as versatile, care-free and dynamic as ornamental grasses," says Liz Klose, an instructor at Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture. When she and husband moved into their house in a new survey, and began to landscape their spacious lot, they decided that a garden dominated by grasses would suit the sunny, open, airy feeling of the neighborhood. 
To help design the garden, Liz enlisted Melissa McKerlie, then a Niagara Parks student, and now the owner of It’s About Thyme, a garden design and maintenance firm in Kitchener, Ont. "It can be difficult to distance yourself from your own property," says Liz, "so I gave Melissa a plant list and she brought a fresh eye to the landscaping process."
For Liz, the appeal of grasses comes from their line, form and texture—and from two other elements most plants rarely provide: movement and sound. "Ornamental grasses act as moving garden sculptures," she says. "They are so dramatic when back-lit by the sun—and they make wonderful rustling sounds in the wind." In her garden, grasses are carefully sited and spaced to avoid crowding and to allow them to move and flow with the breezes. 
Another plus the all-season interest grasses bring to the landscape: "Grasses are never static, Liz explains. "Early in the season they are lush and by summer they've filled out and the some have started to plume [flower]. In autumn you get all the rest pluming and going through wonderful changes of colour—and then all winter their straw-coloured foliage provides sculptural winter interest and the dry seed heads are appealing to birds."

Growing ornamental grasses—some like it hot

Ornamental grasses can be grouped into warm- and cool-season types, depending on when they do most of their growing. In spring, warm-season grasses, for example, fountain grass and Miscanthus species, demand patience. They are very slow to get growing, but thrive in the heat of summer when temperatures range between 24 to 30C°; they come into flower in late summer or early fall. Liz suggests surrounding these grasses with spring flowering bulbs to give colour and interest while the grasses are dormant. Then as the grasses grow, they camouflage the dieback of the bulb foliage.
Cool-season grasses such as blue fescue and feather reed grass, do just the opposite, growing best at temperatures from above freezing to 24°C. They tend to flower early, and stop growing in the heat of summer, resuming growth when temperatures cool in early fall. 

More growing tips: 

  • As a general rule, Liz advises planting all grasses in spring. However, where fall temperatures are mild, cool season grasses may be planted in summer and early fall, as long as they get plenty of moisture.

  • Many warm season grasses are drought-tolerant when established, however, like all plants they need watering while getting established, especially in a dry spring.

  • Most grasses are easy-care, growing well in ordinary, even poor garden soil, seldom needing added fertilizer. Pest and disease problems are uncommon.

  • To allow for movement and for their distinctive forms to stand out, space grasses as far apart as they get tall, for example, Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus'), which grows 1.2-1.8 m (4-6 ft) tall should be planted 1.2-1.8 m (4-6 ft) apart.

  • Some grasses may need dividing when they die out at the centre or get too large; divide warm season grasses in early spring, as they begin growth, and cool-season grasses in early spring or fall; be sure to water newly planted divisions. Digging up and dividing a mature grass plant is not for the faint of heart: you’ll need a sturdy spade and an axe.

  • Give ornamental grasses an annual haircut just before new growth begins in spring, cutting them back to within a few inches of the ground. Use hedge shears and wear gloves—some species have very sharp edges.

  • Many of the best grasses are clump growers (see list below), but some are spreaders. Be wary of vigorous spreaders, such as the popular ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea 'Picta'), as it can take over. Unless you intend to use it as a ground cover, confine it by planting in a bottomless container about 90 cm (36 in) deep, sunk into the ground, or plant in a space where spreading will be restricted, for example, between a building foundation and paved walkway.

A dozen great grasses for your garden


Description & Hardiness

How to grow 

Blood grass 'Red Baron' (Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron')

Very slow spreader; emerges green, then foliage turns dramatic blood red; height/ spread: 45 cm (18 in)/30 cm (12 in); hardy to Zone 5

Warm season grass; moist, well-drained rich soil in full sun; avoid heavy, wet soil; effective planted in groups

Blue fescue 'Elijah Blue' (Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue')

Bright blue-clump-forming grass, grows into small, neat mounds; height/spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 in); Zone 4

Cool-season grass; sun, average, well-drained soil; excellent edging plant or small ground cover

Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)

Medium-sized dome-shaped clumps, blue leaves; tan flower spikes; height/ spread: 80 cm (2 1/2 ft), Zone 4

Cool-season; full sun, well-drained soil; flowers early in season; keeps foliage color in winter

Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis xacutiflora 'Karl Forester')

Upright, clump-forming, attractive wheat-like flowers in early summer; height/ spread: 1.2-1.5 m (4-5 ft), 1 m (3 ft); Zone 4

Cool season; well drained, fertile soil, average moisture; tolerates heavy clay; popular vertical accent plant; effective in groups

Fountain Grass 'Hameln'(Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln')

Medium-sized dark green clump, cascading fountain shape; height/spread: 60-90 cm (2-3 ft)/60 cm (24 in); Zone 5

Warm season; average, well-drained soil, full sun; feathery, buff flower spikes in late summer; good fall color; excellent ground cover 

Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola')

Bright yellow & green striped leaves; stems arch gracefully to one side; height/spread: 45-60 cm (18-24 in), 60 cm (24 in)

Warm season; prefers moist soil, part shade; very slow spreader; elegant companion for shade perennials; use as accent or specimen

Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis'Gracillimus')

Elegant clumping grass with narrow medium green leaves; graceful rounded vase form; height/ spread: 1.2-1.8 m (4-6 ft), 1.2 m (4 ft); Zone 5

Warm season; sun, average soil; elegant accent plant; white flower spikes in fall; may not flower in cold regions

Morning Light Miscanthus (Miscanthus Sinensis 'Morning Light')

Elegant narrow green & white variegated leaves; graceful rounded vase form; height/ spread: 1.2-1.5 m (4-5 ft); Zone 5

Warm season; sun, average soil, tolerates moist soils; attractive accent plant with perennials; blooms late with reddish flowers

Porcupine Grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus')

Bright green leaves with gold horizontal banding; stiff, upright form; height/spread: 1.8 m (6 ft)/1.3-1.5 m (4-5 ft)

Warm season; sun, average soil; use in singly or in groups; spiky form makes dramatic accent plant 

Sea Oats (also Wild Oats or Wood Oats) (Chasmanthium latifolium)

Green, clump-forming; native to wooded areas and moist thickets; height/spread: 75-90 cm (30-36 in), 30 (12 in); Zone 5

Cool season; thrives in moist shade, but tolerant of dry shade; takes sun if soil is rich & moist; attractive, dangling oat-like flowers mid-summer; Be careful: it will self seed

Switch Grass 'Heavy Metal' (Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal')

Cultivar of a North American native grass; blue foliage, upright growing; airy flower heads; height/spread: 120 cm (4ft)/60 cm (2ft); Zone 4

Warm season; sun, any soil; drought-tolerant when established; use as accent, near water features or massed 

Variegated Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea 'Variegata')

Low mound, yellow green striped leaves, purplish flowers; height/spread: 30cm (1 ft)/60 cm (2 ft); Zone 4

Warm season grass; cool, moist soil & part shade; use single plants as accents or mass as ground cover

For more information on growing ornamental grasses, see The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses by Rick Darke (Timber Press, 1999).

Garden writer Yvonne Cunnington grows many ornamental grasses in her garden near Ancaster, Ont. Her favorites include Morning Light Miscanthus, Feather Reed Grass and Golden Hakone Grass.

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