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Designing with Native Grasses

A Grass-Filled Epiphany

A few years ago, I was designing a garden for clients who, like me, are big fans of ornamental grasses. We had planted grasses in abundance on their previous property, but now they were planning a garden composed of informal beds within a formal design. Stymied, I decided to visit the old garden. Like an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while, it looked different to me. I realized that I had used grasses as hedges along pathways, as focal points, and as edgings. Rather than being seduced only by the grasses’ colors, textures, and plumes, I began to see their architectural forms.

Grasses can act visually like shrubs. Some are arching, others stiff and formal. They have different weights as well. It dawned on me that grasses could be used to define space in a garden. With this new insight, I stopped worrying as much about which plants to use and focused on the forms I needed. Suddenly, my ideas began to flow more easily.

Grasses as Hedges and Borders

I used dense, arching forms as hedges and borders to define and enclose areas of the garden. I combined the many vertical shrubs and structures with strong, upright grasses. I chose looser, more open grasses to soften the strictness of the vertical elements. This resulted in a garden with forms that complemented each other, while the different varieties of grasses added subtle color and movement.

Grasses don’t need pruning and are generally hardy. And if one dies, it’s easier—and less costly—to dig out and replace than an evergreen shrub. Hedges made of grasses change through the seasons. You’ll have to accept that you’ll have no hedge in early spring, but the foliage and plumage that follow later in the season are worth waiting for.

Edging with Grasses

I’m always on the lookout for attractive edging plants that won’t fizzle by the end of summer. Edgings are important because they define the shape of a garden bed. Shorter grasses that complement and contrast with plants in a bed make excellent edges. They are neat, hardy, and fuss-free. Their clean lines spill gracefully onto a walkway without taking over. They can be used formally, but the plant itself is informal and loose—a dynamic contradiction of form.

Some grasses are compact and tidy and will lend a formal, tight look to your edges. Sedges (Carex spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–9), which are not technically grasses but act like them, fall into this category. Softer edges are achieved by using grasses with wispy habits, such as blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens and cvs., Zones 4–9) and small fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp. and cvs., Zones 6–11). Some of these grasses can look a bit unkempt and require more maintenance, so choose carefully.

Meadows and Masses of Grasses

Planting a sea of grasses is an effective, low-maintenance way of dealing with large areas. Which grasses I choose for a mass planting depends on the location of the garden and the vantage point of the viewer. For beds seen at a distance, an expanse of tall, thick grasses—such as miscanthus or fountain grass, or a heavy switchgrass like Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’—is effective for stopping the eye.

Or, I might want to walk through the planting and be able to see through it. Using light-textured grasses such as a reed grass, tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa and cvs., Zones 5–9), or wispy switchgrass like Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ would help create a transparent look. If I’m facing a bed head-on from a first-floor window, I might want to graduate the heights of the grasses, resulting in a slope of different textures and colors.

Mixing and Matching Grasses

Grasses also mix well with each other. I like to contrast thin and thick foliage, creating subtle palettes of color. A few of my favorite texture and color contrasts are:

  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ with its graceful, narrow green-and-white blades and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegata’ with bold, broad green-and-white blades.
  • Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, which has reddish-blue foliage, alongside other blue Panicum cultivars like ‘Heavy Metal’, an upright, metallic-blue grass that turns yellow in fall.
  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ with its bold, gold horizontal bands paired with the delicate, gold foliage of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Pünktchen’.

I also suggest using contrasting plumes. I like using Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’, which has purply-black inflorescences, along with Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’, which has pale pink inflorescences. Experimenting with contrast has led to some of my best color and texture combinations.

The Beauty of Native Grasses

While I’ve had great success with many non-native ornamental grasses, I’ve become increasingly interested in incorporating native grasses into my designs. Native grasses can add surprise and delight to the garden, with their unique forms, colors, and textures. Plus, they support local ecosystems and wildlife in ways that non-native plants simply can’t.

Grow Native has some fantastic resources for designing with native grasses, from formal front yard plans to meadow-inspired plantings. I’ve been experimenting with native switchgrasses, bluestems, and grama grasses, and I’m always excited to see how they perform and complement the other plants in the garden.

Embracing the Unexpected

Being aware of the forms of grasses has changed how I use these plants in my designs. In fact, even as I rely on grasses to set new boundaries in the garden, I’ve freed myself from some old design constraints. I’m more open to the unexpected, to letting the grasses guide me to new and exciting design possibilities.

After all, the best gardens are the ones that surprise and delight us, that make us see the world a little differently. And when it comes to designing with native grasses, the possibilities are truly endless. So why not embrace the adventure and see where these incredible plants take you?

If you’re ready to embark on your own grass-filled journey, I encourage you to visit Today’s Gardens, where you’ll find a wealth of inspiration and resources to help you create the garden of your dreams. Who knows what grass-fueled epiphanies might be waiting for you?

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