Ornamental grasses can add movement, variation and year-round colour to your borders, raised beds and back yard planting schemes.
While most of us might associate the term “grasses” with the slender elegances of rushes and reeds, these versatile and diverse plants come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, the grass genus is one of the biggest in the entire plant kingdom, with strains and species having adapted to every conceivable climate and soil type on the planet.
What that means is that in addition to the long, waving stems of taller grasses, there are also a number of small, short and low-growing varieties which are perfect for more economical spaces. They also work well in stitching the aesthetic of your garden together, providing a subtler background link between more showy blooms. The fact that there are many evergreen varieties available– alongside the multi-toned colours which many strains offer – make them an ideal method of brightening up your display throughout the colder months.
As with any horticultural decision, choosing the right grasses for your unique plot of land is essential to a successful aesthetic. Although most varieties are unfussy creatures which will flourish well in almost all soil types, climates and solar exposure cycles, it pays to do your homework and select specimens that will perform best in your part of the country.
Aside from the practical considerations of which grasses will flourish in the conditions available to you, the other major factor in your decision-making process should be a cosmetic one. In this respect, it pays to be bold in your choice of ornamental grasses, opting for colours that will change and transform as the calendar year progresses. This means they can not only complement the existing décor in your display, but provide a focal point all of their own, as well.
For any green-fingered enthusiast for whom space is at a premium, or who simply wishes to use smaller varieties of grass to create a more compact and grounded effect, here is a suggested list of low-growing ornamental grasses that won’t exceed one metre in height.
Twelve short picks for your garden
1) Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’
Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ – otherwise known as Sweet Flag – is a semi-evergreen grass which provides vibrant colour for much of the year. Its distinctive sword-shaped leaves are a delicious yellow in colour, complemented by the lush green of the variegated stripes which line them. The plant will remain an attractive component of your display until late autumn when the foliage begins to fade, at which point it should be pruned back to encourage further growth the following year.
Unlike many other grasses, Acorus gramineus actually prefers wetter soil types with poor drainage, so it makes for an excellent addition to the periphery of a pond, fountain or other water feature. Alternatively, you can leverage the vibrancy of its foliage to brighten up shady areas of the garden which don’t receive much in the way of sunlight.
2) Elymus magellanicus
With its metallic blue leaves that carry an almost silver hue, Elymus magellicanus is perhaps the bluest of all bluegrasses. It’s a native of South America, with the plant found in plentiful supply in the colder climes of southern Chile and Argentina. For that reason, it holds up well against the vagaries of the Great British climate, though it won’t prosper in the extremes of a summer heatwave or a winter frost.
Instead, Elymus magellanicus prefers a milder year-round temperature. In the right conditions, it can provide evergreen colour, though gardeners may notice that it exhibits signs of fading and fatigue in winter. If that happens, it should be cut back severely in spring, after which it will rebound slowly but reliably, requiring very little in the way of maintenance. It shouldn’t require dividing for several years, but spring is the best time to do so when the opportunity does arise.
3) Festuca glauca
Sometimes called ‘Blaufuchs’ or Blue Fox, Festuca glauca is another compact grass defined by the steely blue of its leaves. Unlike Elymus magellanicus, however, Festuca glauca is a deciduous plant which dies away during the colder months. Its foliage is also narrower and more needle-like than the sword-shaped fronds of its South American counterpart, while the green buds of flowers which appear in summer are similarly slender and unglamorous in their nature.
The striking colour of its leaves makes it an ideal addition to a rock garden, where the metallic hues will complement the greys and whites of pebbles and stones beneath. Growing to just 35cm in height, it’s easily manageable and will thrive in most soil types with little in the way of support.
4) Hakonechloa macra
Hailing from the rocky cliffs of the Japanese island of Honshu, this attractively shaped perennial grass is great for bringing a touch of the Orient into your back yard. Its long, curving green leaves spring from a tufted mound and shoot upwards, before draping over themselves in an eye-catching manner. Meanwhile, the red and brown hues that the foliage takes on in autumn and winter make it a crowd-pleaser right through the calendar.
The cascading nature of the plant’s growth makes it ideal as an edging element to a pathway, an understated backdrop to taller and showier shrubs or flowers or as a standalone focal point in a minimalist gravel forecourt. It’s fully hardy and slow growing, meaning it doesn’t require much in the way of garden care, though it will appreciate being pruned in winter and mulched in sprung to encourage an encore of growth in the following year.
5) Imperata cylindrica
Characterised by the brilliance of its scarlet spikes, Imperata cylindrica – or Red Baron, to give it one of its common names – is perhaps one of the more eye-catching inclusions on this list. The redness of the foliage fades into a mellow green at its roots and the entire leaf turns slightly translucent as it matures. This interesting visual effect makes it perfect for livening up borders and pairing with similarly ostentatious grasses and shrubs.
It’s a hardy little critter which will handle most soil types with ease, but for the most vivid colours which really pop, it’s advisable to grow Imperata cylindrica in moist soil with a high humus count in full view of the sun’s rays. It also works equally well in a pot or container and when set alongside three or four other plants of the same genus, it will produce a particularly impressive aesthetic.
6) Koeleria glauca
The blue-green tufted hummocks of Koeleria glauca (common name: Blue hair grass) are most popular in rock gardens and gravel forecourts. The foliage is at its most stunning earlier in the year, while the blooming of silver-green flowers come summertime add another layer of intrigue. As the shadows begin to lengthen and autumn sets in, the leaves and flowers both fade to a rustic straw-yellow.
Hardy, low-maintenance and unassuming, Koeleria glauca is a fantastic choice for those looking for a more reserved accompaniment to brighter flowering plants. Indeed, perhaps the only drawback of this resilient and versatile species is that it generally doesn’t last as long as some others on this list, so may require replacement within a couple of years.
7) Luzula sylvatica
This evergreen perennial is often planted en masse, forming a handsomely hummocked carpet for your garden floor. Although Luzula sylvatica does bear small clusters of brown flowers in late spring and early summer, the floral blooms are not considered its finest attribute. Instead, it’s the glossy greenery of its foliage, which spills out of loose clumps in an overflowing effect, which steal the show.
Native to both Europe and southwest Asia, this hardy little specimen knows a thing or two about colder temperatures. It doesn’t enjoy the full heat of the sun if the soil beneath it is allowed to dry out, but will otherwise cope with pretty much anything the elements throw at it. For best results, plant it in grouped clumps and divide to propagate further come springtime.
8) Millium effusum
With sprouting foliage that appears bright yellow in spring before turning a rich green later in the year, Millium effusum is a favourite among gardeners searching for a bright grass to add some energy to a dark or jaded part of their display. It’s semi-evergreen in nature, meaning the foliage is prone to losing some or all of its lustre in the colder months, but it invariably grows back again the following year. The delicate yellow flowerheads of summertime only add to its appeal.
It’ll work best in soil with good drainage, while it doesn’t overly enjoy too much UV radiation, so keep it in a shady spot to coax the best performance out of it. Dead foliage and flowerheads can be pruned in spring and it can be propagated by division at that time of the year, too. Other than that, Millium effusum will thrive when left to its own devices.
9) Melica uniflora
As the Latin name of this elegant grass suggests, Melica uniflora flowers bloom singly come summertime. Their spiky panicles are apt to sway pleasingly in a gentle breeze, while the dense, pointed foliage beneath provide depth and colour to their backdrop. For that reason, they’re a popular choice for blending the edges of a garden with the surrounding environment, blurring the lines between nature and nurture.
As a native of Europe, northern Africa and southwestern Asia, Melica uniflora is a highly adaptable grass which will fare well in almost all conditions, from the high altitude of the Alps to the low plains of the prairie. As such, it should perform well wherever you place it in your garden and will grow in slowly spreading clumps that are easy to manage should they become too big for their horticultural boots.
10) Pennisetum villosum
Pennisetum villosum – or feathertop – is one of the most desirable ornamental grasses going, especially in sensory gardens where touch is just as important as aesthetics. That’s due to the bobbing masses of rabbit tail-like blooms, which spring up each summer and sit proudly atop the fine-leaved foliage like clouds. As well as being incredibly easy on the eye, they’re also the kind of grass that begs to be touched.
As natives of tropical regions of Africa, Pennisetum villosum is unlikely to survive the harsher extremes of a British winter. There’s no need to worry, however, since they are experts at self-seeding and will, in all likelihood, come back the following year even stronger with little in the way of help from your end. Should you require to be called into action, you’ll find they can be replanted and reinvigorated with the minimum of fuss.
11) Sesleria caerulea
Although not the first grass on this list to carry a bluish tinge to its green, Sesleria caerulea is perhaps unique in its combination of those two colours. That’s because the topside of its leaves features a dull blue that’s almost grey in hue, while the underside is painted in a rich dark green. Together, those shades make for quite the head-turning specimen, while the purple flowers which proliferate during summer are just the icing on the cake.
Ideal for use as ground cover, Sesleria caerulea prefers well-draining soil that receives full or partial sun. It’ll reach a maximum of 50cm in height, meaning it can work well at the front of a border with taller plants in behind, while the only maintenance it will require is a quick raking in spring to separate the dead leaves from the live ones.
12) Stipa tenuissima
Stipa tenuissima goes by many names: Mexican feather grass, pony’s tail or angel hair to name but a few. One look at the soft feathery flowerheads which proliferate in summer will reassure you that each of them is an apt moniker for this attractive deciduous, clump-forming grass. It’s particularly effective when placed alongside other grasses or as part of a herbaceous border, adding understated charm to its surroundings.
The long, slender stems of Stipa tenuissima grow to a maximum of 60cm in length, while the plant will perform most impressively in full view of the sun and in sandy soil that enjoys good drainage. Its flowerheads make for attractive cut-and-dried floral displays, but alternatively, the seeds within them can provide a solid source of sustenance for finches and other birds in autumn and winter.
Jonny is an avid writer with a background in tourism, film and literature, but has a penchant for penning articles on all kinds of topics. He's always considered himself an environmentalist to some degree, but in recent times he has found himself shining a greater spotlight on his daily lifestyle choices and how the tiny changes he can make to his routine can have a cumulatively significant impact on the planet.