Ornamental grasses offer gardens an unparalleled combination of long-lasting form and colour, along with airy grace, charm, and movement. As well as attractive foliage, many ornamental grasses bear flowers in summer that last for months. There’s a superb range of ornamental grass varieties to grow, with compact types ideal for pots and raised beds, tall slender ones for use as screens or adding strong vertical elements in borders, and moisture-loving grasses for pond edges and boggy soil. While the different types have different growing requirements, most do best in a fertile soil in sun or part shade. Some ornamental grasses tolerate drought while a few require moisture retentive soil that doesn’t dry out.
Ornamental grasses make great companions to many other plants, enhancing the whole look of a planting scheme, with contrasting form and foliage. Some are evergreen and invaluable for all year interest. Deciduous grasses die back in autumn yet still retain their form and structure for months, sometimes even right through winter.
Ornamental grasses are easy to care for. Deciduous ones should be cut right back before new growth begins in spring, whilst evergreens just need tidying to remove last year’s flower stems and any dead foliage. Most grasses can be propagated by division, in early spring.
Pheasant’s tail grass, Anemanthele
This evergreen perennial grass provides year-round colour and structure with bold, low clumps of light-reflecting leaves. Its slender foliage emerges green, but matures to yellow, orange and red over time, reaching a peak in intensity in winter.
Height x Spread: 60cm x 90cm
Greater quaking grass, Briza maxima
This annual grass tends to self-seed from year to year so you’re likely to always have it. Pale green flowers hang like water droplets from thin stems. It’s the perfect foil for more colourful plants, both in the garden and the vase.
H x S: 30cm x 10cm
Reed grass, Calamagrostis
This perennial grass is ideal for growing in the middle of the border. It forms clumps of slender leaves, sometimes subtly variegated, and upright stems of buff or pinkish flowers. Grow in sun or part shade in any reasonably fertile soil.
H x S: 1.2m x 60cm
Sedge grass, Carex
This is a varied and useful group of perennial grasses that are mostly evergreen with coloured foliage. Smaller varieties are ideal for pots. There’s a wide range of carex species and varieties with leaf colours including gold or white-variegated foliage, olive-green and bronze. Most require reasonably fertile soil that doesn’t dry out while some need moist soil.
H x S: up to 1.2m x 1.2m
Pampas grass, Cortaderia
This large, clump-forming evergreen perennial grass is a popular garden favourite, bearing tall plumes of silvery flowers above a clump of mid-green foliage. Traditionally grown as a focal point in lawns, it also works well as part of a mixed perennial scheme. Plant in full sun and good soil. Cortaderia pumila is the most compact while Cortaderia selleona is larger.
H x S: 2.4m x 1.2m
Hair grass, Deschampsia
This evergreen perennial forms neat and compact clumps of slender green or yellow-green leaves and produces slender stems topped with a mass of tiny, airy flowers. Grow in sun or part shade: Deschampsia cespitosa does best in free-draining soil while Deschampsia flexuosa needs damp acid soil.
H x S: up to 90cm x 30cm
Blue fescue, Festuca glauca
This compact, mound-forming evergreen perennial grass has beautiful silvery blue leaves, complemented by short green flower spikes that gradually fade to straw-brown. Grow it in a gravel garden or container in full sun.
H x S: 30cm x 20cm
Japanese golden grass, Hakonechloa macra
This popular perennial grass forms a mound of arching, striped green and yellow leaves in spring, maturing to greeny-gold in summer before dying back to parchment-brown in winter. Perfect for pots and the edges of raised beds.
H x S: 40cm x 40cm
Blood grass, Imperata cylindrica
This deciduous perennial grass has striking leaves topped with blood-red, the colouring developing on the tips and spreading down the green stem. Grow in full sun or light shade, in rich, moisture retentive soil. In cold areas, protect with a thick winter mulch.
H x S: 40cm x 30cm
Wood rush, Luzula
This evergreen perennial grass is shade-loving, and therefore perfect for a woodland garden, shady border or for using as ground cover beneath large plants. Does best in a moisture-retentive soil with plenty of organic matter. Green or gold foliage forms in loose clumps.
H x S: 90cm x 45cm
Bowles’ golden grass, Milium effusum
This shade-loving perennial is semi-evergreen. The leaves are bright golden yellow when newly emerged in spring, maturing to green-yellow, and it bears small stems of yellow flowers.
H x S: 30cm
Silvergrass, Miscanthus sinensis
This deciduous perennial forms tall, architectural clumps of stiffly upright leaves topped with bold fluffy flowers on tall stems. There are many varieties, some of which have leaves striped or banded in contrasting colours, and some are much more free-flowering than others. Grow in sun, in any reasonably fertile soil.
H x S: 1.8m x 60cm
Moor grass, Molinia
This deciduous perennial has striking flowers, with airy heads borne on stiffly upright stems. Needs a moisture-retentive, preferably acid to neutral soil, in sun or part shade.
H x S: from 45-150cm x 40-80cm
Lilyturf, Ophiopogon planiscapus
Ground-covering evergreen perennial that spreads to form many little clumps of slender leaves. Black-leaved varieties are most widely grown for their dramatic impact. Short stems of purplish-white flowers are followed by blue-black berries. Not actually a true grass but is usually sold along with ornamental grasses due to its appearance. Grow in sun or part shade in moist but well-drained soil.
H x S: 20cm x 30cm
Switch grass, Panicum virgatum
Evergreen perennial with upright-growing blue-green to blue-grey leaves which have good autumn colour. Masses of open panicles of flowers are borne in summer. Grow in well-drained soil and full sun in a border or gravel garden.
H x S: 1.2m x 60cm
Hardy fountain grasses Pennisetum
Pennisetum is a varied group that includes both hardy perennial grasses and frost-tender types. The hardy perennial ones are evergreen and bear large, ‘whiskery’ flower heads that resemble hairy caterpillars. These species, which include Pennisetum alopecuroides and Pennisetum villosum, need full sun and a light well-drained soil. Hardy down to -10C, so may still be lost in hard winters.
H x S: 60cm x 60cm
Tender fountain grasses, Pennisetum
Frost tender fountain grasses are grown for their dramatic purple coloured foliage and showy plumes of flowers. They’re ideal for a summer-autumn display in pots, borders or raised beds, in full sun, and include the variety ‘Fireworks’.
H x S: 1.2m x 90cm
Giant oat grass, Stipa gigantea
Giant oat grass bears huge heads of open oat-like flowerheads above a mound of green leaves. Although tall, the airy heads are ‘see-through’ so it can be grown anywhere in a sunny border.
H x S: 2.5m x 1.2m
Pony-tail grass, Stipa tenuissima
H x S: 60cm x 30cm
Hook sedge, Uncinia
Evergreen perennial that forms a small, rounded clump of colourful leaves that are reddish brown to orange-brown, ideal for the edge of a border. Grow in fertile, moisture-retentive soil in fun sun or partial shade.
H x S: 30cm x 30cm