Color, Shape, and Size

Choose a grass the right size and shape for your landscape. Some ornamental grasses get extremely tall. For example, towering ravenna grass (Saccharum ravennae), with 14-foot-high flower spikes, makes a striking accent. But not if it's planted at the front of a flower bed. Better choices for this situation are low-growing grasses, such as blue fescue (Festuca glauca) for sunny borders or hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra) for shady spots. Grasses with variegated leaves (colored patches, stripes or spots) lend a unique pattern and texture to the landscape. In recent years, 'Morning Light' miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'), with fine, white-edged leaves, has taken the spotlight. Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'), with horizontal yellow bands across its green leaves, remains a tried-and-true choice. For vibrant color, you can't beat Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron'). Its leaves emerge green with dark-red tips in spring. By early summer they're bright red, and in fall they intensify to a deep burgundy. Avoid Invasion


Most grasses don't spread rampantly once planted. But the ones that spread rapidly by runners, like Silver banner grass (Miscanthus sacchariflorus) and ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea 'Picta'), can be very difficult to confine once established. These grasses are useful for covering a large area or preventing soil erosion, but use them with caution.
Grasses that self-seed prolifically are potentially invasive as well. And a grass that's not invasive in one climate can get out of hand in another. If in doubt, consult your local extension service or chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Shopping Tips


With the recent surge in popularity of ornamental grasses, nurseries and garden centers nationwide are offering an ever-expanding selection. A nursery that has a display garden lets you see how plants mature and change through the seasons. This is especially important with grasses because their often bedraggled appearance in nursery containers doesn't reflect their striking beauty once planted. Grasses are typically sold in 1-, 2- and 5-gallon containers. Though you might consider a single plant expensive — $9 to $15 for one in a 2-gallon container — perennial grasses are a good value. They live for years, sometimes decades; they also fill out quickly, reaching maturity in one or two years. If you can't find certain grasses locally, check the catalogs listed in our Where to Find It guide. Mail-order companies offer the widest selection; plants usually come bare-root. To add to your shopping challenge, grasses are known by a variety of botanical and common names. Darke's book can help with alternate names that you might encounter in catalogs and at the nursery.
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