Ornamental garden grasses

Grasses really can be great garden plants and the most wonderful thing about them is that they need very little investment by way of time and effort according to Neil Lucas.

Pennisetum Dark Desire
Pennisetum 'Dark Desire'. Image: Knoll Gardens
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Until recently most people thought of grass in gardens as a sweep of lawn requiring mowing all summer long. Those lawns took up a lot of time and effort and gave very little in return. Personally I was very happy to dig up the lawn where at all possible to save work. But, if you look at the whole family of grasses it is easy to see why they are becoming so very popular now in gardens borders, containers and in swathes of meadow-style planting.

Grasses are easy to please and easy to use, but because they come from such widely differing natural conditions, you need to choose the right grass for the right place in your garden. Grasses originating from hot prairie conditions will not thrive in damp shade any more than those from damp woodland will enjoy being planted against a warm south facing house wall.

However, choose your plant to match your situation and you will be rewarded with years of great-looking, maintenance-free gardening. So before you start shopping, think about your own garden situation and then see which of the following fabulous five grasses will work best for you.

Hakonechloa Aureola
Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’. Image: Knoll Gardens.

For dry shade: Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’

Virtually every garden has an area of dry shade. Often created by trees or buildings this can be the most difficult of situations to plant successfully. Yet grasses can offer several options and one of the most popular is the golden hakone grass, Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’.

It has a refined narrow leaf and gradually forms long-lived weed-smothering mounds that are effective from spring right through to winter. I have a bed of this amazing grass under a tree in shade and it looks stunning. Better still the hakone grass is so adaptable it also makes a fabulous pot plant in either sun or shade. Semi-evergreen 30 – 45cm high.

Pennisetum Dark Desire
Pennisetum ‘Dark Desire’. Image: Knoll Gardens.

For dry sun: Pennisetum ‘Dark Desire’

A mixture of full sun and dry conditions can quite literally bake plants that are not used to such exposure. Lots of grasses can do well in dry sunny spots, including any of those with blue foliage but possibly my favourites are the fountain grasses, Pennisetum. These produce masses of flowers that simply cascade from the foliage in the right conditions.

A personal favourite of mine is the fairly new Pennisetum ‘Dark Desire’, which has truly stunning dark red to black bottlebrush-like flowers that seem to explode from the foliage during summer and into autumn. It just demands to be stroked as you pass by. Deciduous (it will die back in winter and regrow in spring) 80cm – 1m high.

Hordeum jubatum
Hordeum jubatum. Image: Knoll Gardens

For sun and good drainage: Hordeum jubatum

Many of the best grasses are cultivars, which simply means you need to buy plants as they don’t grow from seed. One rather lovely exception is the squirrel tail or Hordeum jubatum. This is a short-lived perennial so it may only last for one to three seasons but seed is freely produced and usually comes up each year once the plant is established.

It needs sun and average to well-drained soil to be happy. You can also sow fresh seed either collected from last year’s plants or bought afresh. The leaves are not that wonderful but the flowers are delicately beautiful and sway in the slightest summer breeze. Deciduous 50 – 70cm high.

Calamagrostis Karl Foerster
Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. Image: Knoll Gardens.

For sunny open ground: Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’

Rather different, and somewhat taller than other grasses, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ is deservedly popular for its straight growth and initially dark reddish-purple flowers that soon fade to its trademark beige. An amazingly architectural plant it is also really tough and long-lived.

It prefers sunny open conditions but will cope in a little light shade and in a variety of soils including dry and damp. It works well in borders with other plants and because of its upright habit will also form a stunning informal hedge or screen. Deciduous 1.6m – 1.8m high.

Luzula nivea
Luzula nivea. Image: Knoll Gardens.

For damp conditions: Luzula nivea

Damp conditions can often be found in sun or shade and can prove equally difficult to plant successfully. Luckily there really is a grass for any situation. Luzula nivea is a tough plant but offers a winning combination of evergreen foliage and clouds of hazy white flowers produced in late spring. Often cut back after flowering this grass then sends up a second batch of leaves that are covered with tiny white hairs for the rest of the year. Evergreen 50 – 60cm high.

Neil Lucas

About Neil Lucas

One of Britain’s leading plantsmen, Neil Lucas is a world authority on ornamental grasses, owner of Dorset-based Knoll Gardens, RHS Council Member and Senior Judge, author, and holder of 10 consecutive Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals. When not lecturing, writing, or plant-hunting overseas, Neil can be found on his nursery or tending his acclaimed naturalistic garden. @knollgardens
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