Choosing ornamental grasses for your garden can be a great way to add drama and style.
We offer some things to think about when choosing ornamental grasses in the UK – help you think about why and where you might use them in your garden, while exploring ten of the best ornamental grasses to consider.
Choosing Ornamental Grasses
When choosing ornamental grasses for your garden, you should consider:
- Whether you want annual or perennial grasses.
- If evergreen or deciduous species are right for you.
- Sunlight and shade conditions in the area where the grass is to grow.
- What type of soil you have, and its characteristics.
- If you want an ornamental grass to grow in the ground or in containers.
So, if you’ve decided ornamental grasses are right for your garden – which should you choose?
Here are ten genus’ that could provide the answers you are looking for and help you to find the right plants for the right places:
Technically a sedge rather than a grass, Carex has flowering stems that are triangular and solid rather than round and hollow in cross-section. [source]
But this plant is grass-like and often grouped in and categorised with ornamental grasses.
The arching leaves of these plants, produced in clumps, can vary dramatically in colour and can have different edging or stripes.
Most carex will prefer consistently moist soil in sun or light shade, but there are a few which like wet soil, and others that thrive in acid conditions.
Carex to consider include:
- Carex comans bronze leaved
- Carex dipsacea ‘Dark Horse’
- Carex elata ‘Aurea’ (Pictured above)
- Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’
- Carex siderosticta ‘Variagata’
Stipa is a genus of grasses that provides several more great options for UK gardens.
These are perennial grasses that have fluffy, feathery or oat-like flowering beds.
Some are deciduous, and some are evergreen.
They come in various sizes and so can work well in many gardens.
Stipa tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, is a deciduous ornamental grass forming tufts of thread-like leaves that are around 60cm in height.
It has narrow, arched panicles of feather-like flowers in the summer.
It will grow well in any medium or light, moderately moist yet well-drained soil in full sun.
Other Stipa to consider include:
- Stipa gigantea ‘Pixie’ (Golden oats ‘Pixie’)
- Stipa gigantea ‘Gold Fontaene’ (Golden oats ‘Gold Fontaene’)
- S. calamagrostis (Rough Feather Grass)
- Stipa pseudoichu
- Stipa ichu.
Commonly known as ‘fountain grasses’, this is another type of ornamental grass well worth considering in a UK garden.
Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ is a perennial, deciduous grass that can grow up to around 1.2m tall.
It forms quite upright clumps of greyish-green leaves and forms arching silvery-pinkish flower heads that fade to a soft beige by the time of the first frosts.
Pennisetum advena ‘Fireworks’ is a more dramatic option, with leaves of deep burgundy red that fade to pink at the edges when grown in full sun.
The red flower plumes fade to brown gradually over the autumn months.
Other interesting Pennisetum ornamental grasses include:
- P. villosum (bunny tail like flowers great for stroking).
- P. orientale
- P. thunbergii ‘Red Buttons’
- P. macrourum (African feather grass)
- P. alopecuroides ‘Red Head’
Festuca ornamental grasses can be either herbaceous or evergreen.
They have linear, often strikingly hued leaves and form brownish flower heads in summer.
One interesting Festuca is Festuca glauca ‘Blaufuchs’.
It has dramatic steely blue needle-like leaves, and forms compact tufts around 20cm in height.
It will grow in almost any reasonably well-drained soil in full sun and can be great for rock gardens or containers.
Another interesting small Festuca glauca is ‘Golden Toupee’, which has bright yellow leaves in spring which fade to greyish green.
Other ornamental grasses within this group include:
- Festuca amethystina (tufted fescue)
- F. Gigantea (giant fescue)
- F. arundinacea
- F. caesia
- F. violacea
If you are looking for a British native ornamental grass then Molinia caerulea (purple moor grass) is a great option to consider.
This belongs to a genus with just two herbaceous perennial grasses.
It forms clumps of erect leaves up to around 1.2m tall, with tall spikes of purplish flowers which emerge in the summer.
In autumn, the foliage turns a zingy yellow colour.
Cultivars of Molinia caerulea include ‘Karl Foerster’, ‘ Skyracer’ (pictured) and ‘Windspiel’.
Miscanthus are common ornamental grasses for UK gardens.
They grow well in a range of locations and provide visual appeal over a long period.
Compact varietals work very well to break up borders, or even in containers, while larger and grander varietals are best grown as isolated specimen plants so their elegance can be admired from 360 degrees.
They will flower best in full sun and dislike having wet feet.
Miscanthus to consider when looking for ornamental grasses for your garden include:
- Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ (Pictured)
- M. sinensis ‘Ghana’
- M. sinensis ‘Morning Light’
- M. sinensis ‘Flamingo’
- M. sinensis ‘Kleine Fontane’
Hakonechloa is a type of perennial, deciduous grass.
It forms compact tufts of arching stems.
In the late summer and autumn, it has arching flower panicles, which are obvious in some cultivars and insignificant in others.
Hakonechloa macra, also known as Hakone grass, is known for its tough and eye-catching foliage.
Unlike many other grasses, this is a great choice for moist and shady conditions.
The foliage can come in a range of hues, sometimes with variegation.
Options for those looking for ornamental grasses for a more moist and shady spot include:
- H. macra ‘Alboaurea’
- H. macra ‘All Gold’
- H. macra ‘Aureole’
- H. macra ‘Naomi’
- H. macra ‘Nicholas’
Cortaderia, or pampas grasses, are another well-known genus of ornamental grasses well worth considering for many gardens.
They are large evergreen grass species which typically form grand, compact tufts of rough edges leaves and bear grand silvery or pinkish panicles of flowers.
Cortaderia selloana is a grand and dramatic plant selection, growing up to 2.5-3m high, and spreading into clumps 1.8m wide or more.
Its grand plumes of flowers are 45-90cm long, silvery-white and often tinged with pink or purple.
But it will need full sun and a rich, deep, fertile, well-drained soil to perform at its best.
If you want something smaller and a bit more manageable, consider Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’, which forms clumps of leaves around 45cm in height, then sends up silky, cream-coloured plumes on stems 1.2m high in late summer.
Calamagrostis is a genus of grasses that also provides several great options when it comes to ornamental grasses for UK gardens.
These are perennial grasses that form tufts of linear leaves, with upright stems which bear dense flowering panicles in summer.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is one common option to consider.
It is a striking grass prized for its plentiful flower stems that stand up well to a height of up to 1.8m without support.
Deschampsia grasses are tufted grasses that can be either deciduous or evergreen.
They have linear or thread-like leaves and open flowering panicles that form during the summer.
Deschampsia cespitosa is a deciduous ornamental grass called ‘tufted hair grass’.
Interesting cultivars include:
- D. cespitosa ‘Schottland’
- D. cespitosa ‘Goldschlier’
- D. cespitosa ‘Tatra Gold’
- D. cespitosa ‘Waldschatt’
- D. cespitosa ‘Bronzeschleier’
Of course, the options mentioned above are just a small selection of the many ornamental grasses that you could consider for your garden.
But these should give you a place to start if you are seeking out some attractive ornamental grass varieties for your beds and borders.
Where To Use Them
Ornamental grasses can be used in a wide range of different gardens.
The good news is that there are so many grasses to choose from that you can find one that is suited to almost every position.
There are ornamental grasses that grow best in full sun, and others that can cope with shade.
Some thrive in very dry conditions, while others love a water-retentive or even boggy site, perhaps even as a marginal beside a garden pond.
You can find dramatic grasses that grow metres tall, and others that are ideal for small gardens or containers that are much more restricted in size.
Some grow just 30cm or so high.
Taller grasses will do best in a sheltered position, as this will prevent their long flower spikes from becoming damaged by wind.
You can use ornamental grasses as individual specimen plants, or in mixed beds or borders.
But, arguably, ornamental grasses look at their very best when planted together in drifts of naturalistic, prairie style planting in a sunny border.
They can also be beneficial planted to partially screen off certain areas of a garden from view, or to obscure unsightly views from the garden.
Why Grow Ornamental Grasses?
Ornamental grasses are great low maintenance plants.
- Many can grow even in problematic locations, on even the poorest of soils.
- They take little work, are bothered by few pests or diseases, and often provide visual interest for most, if not all, of the year. [source]
- They can break up and soften other planting, especially dense floral borders…
- They can be used to relieve stolid, overly floral and old fashioned planting and give a garden a natural but more modern appearance and atmosphere.
- And ornamental grasses can often also bring benefits for local wildlife too – providing them with shelter, and seeds to eat later in the year – especially if they form part of a broader and more varied perennial planting scheme. [source]
They can work very well in drifts interspersed with perennial prairie wildflowers, for example.
A permaculture garden designer, sustainability consultant and freelance writer, Elizabeth works as an advocate for positive change. She aims to inspire others to reconnect with nature and live in a more eco-friendly way. She also tries to practice what she preaches as she tends her own forest garden, polyculture beds and polytunnel. See her personal website here.