Grasses at Chickadee Gardens

Ornamental grasses represent in every corner of Chickadee Gardens. When I say grasses, I am referring to ornamental grasses rather than lawn. Versatile, fairly low-maintenance, multi-purpose ornamental grasses are an element tying the garden to the surrounding fields and landscape. They meld the whole garden together, a unifying element. Larger grasses blow in the breeze adding an element of sound while seeds provide nourishment to songbirds. The large grasses are cover for birds; you find them bopping around, pecking at the ground below, especially in our autumn and winter months. Many grasses add a vertical accent and some catch the light like no other plant. There are grasses for sun, for shade, tall and short grasses, grasses for dry soil and grasses for soggy. They come in silvers, yellows, golds, lime-green and dark green, orange and purple, too. Taking a mental inventory of these useful plants is a task I’ve wanted to complete for some time. So here it is, nearly all of the grasses at Chickadee Gardens.

In this photo, four separate genera of grasses are represented. From left to right, tall spiky ones are Muhlenbergia rigens with silvery blue Festuca rubra ‘Patrick’s Point’ at its feet. On the right, the tall grass is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cabaret’ with Carex comans ‘Frosty Curls’ at its feet with barely visible clump of Stipa gigantea ‘Little Giant’ on the far right.

GRASSES FOR SUN

First up on the grasses for the sunny side of life, Muhlenbergia rigens, deer grass is a West Coast native and a favorite. These spikes, which come on in summer to fall, are illuminated by the smallest amount of sunlight.

Here they are in the harsh full sun of summer. I’d say these are about 5′ tall including flower spikes. The basal foliage is evergreen, but you can cut them back to freshen them. I have cut them back to see if it makes a difference in their growth. I’d say that cutting them back in late winter makes for a greener, fresher plant, but the spikes do form later in the year so you would be sacrificing those until I’d say August. 

Carex comans ‘Frosty Curls’ – well, they have seeded around so much I don’t know if they are officially ‘Frosty Curls’ – I could have C. comans ‘Green’ mixed in, and honestly, I can’t tell the difference. They are small, about 1′ or so and pretty easy. They do seed about, but are effortless to remove if need be. They are evergreen. I “comb” them out once or twice a year to remove dead foliage for they can look pretty ratty after a year or two. That foliage, dried grass essentially, usually makes its way to the chicken yard where the hens can walk softly on it rather than mud. The chicken yard now has a field of this grass, a welcome consequence of all those seeds from the dried grass material.  

Carex comans ‘Frosty Curls’ detail.

As seen from the other side with Geranium ‘Rozanne’ in the foreground and Stipa gigantea ‘Little Giant’ in the background.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cabaret’. Four of these border the eastern edge of the house. They have become giants, a grass we have to cut down with a chainsaw in late winter. But they offer height (probably 8′ tall), sound when they move in the breeze and shelter for birds.

A singular plant in a different part of the garden. The variegation breaks up this part of the garden. By the way, they are great for flower-arranging.

They also have lovely autumn color and in general stand upright through the winter.

Next is Stipa gigantea. Another grass with evergreen basal foliage and amazing flowers in early summer.

Although they are giant in that they are really tall at about 6′ or so, they are airy enough that they blend in. These are a cultivar by
Xera Plants called ‘Little Giant’. I have these and the straight species both.

Another stipa, this one Stipa barbata with the most amazing seeds of any grass I know. Small clumps of narrow blades yield these amazing flowers in summer. They don’t last, however, as they blow away easily.

Stipa barbata forming its magnificent flowers that haven’t expanded at this stage.

Helictotrichon sempervirens, blue oat grass down by the gate. This is pretty fool-proof as long as you don’t kill it with kindness. It likes it on the dry side and with full sun for the best color.

Pennisetum spathiolatum or slender veldt grass, a fabulous grass with semi-evergreen basal foliage, although I cut it back to freshen it in late winter. It’s not too tall at about 2 – 3′ (the basal foliage) tall and blends beautifully with asters, other grasses and meadow perennials.

Another in the large category, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ was given to me at a garden blogger’s swap several years ago. It is pretty reliably upright, meaning it doesn’t flop in wet weather as badly as other large grasses do (Panicums I’m looking at you!).

Here it is in winter with those tell-tale, fluffy flowers. Panicum ‘Northwind’ on the left – with, I might add, supporting bamboo to keep it upright. But it does have good autumn color – both do, actually, although the miscanthus’ is long gone.

Here they are in summer, this time Panicum ‘Northwind’ on the right and Miscanthus ‘Malepartus’ on the left. Both are in need of the chainsaw cleanup method.

Another panicum, this one is Panicum ‘Cloud Nine’ with autumn color. While I adore the grasses, especially the flowers, they flop every year, even with support. They do reach 9′ tall, easily, hence the name.

At the base of these stairs off of the deck on the right is P. ‘Cloud Nine’.

Panicum ‘Cloud Nine’ in summer with a little buddy in the center. We love the frogs and can hear them singing as this is just outside our bedroom window.

Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ as seen in November, a short but mighty grass at two or so feet high with flowers. I keep it on the dry side with great drainage. Pretty easy, but if its feet are wet apparently it does not do well. According to High Country Gardens’ website, it was discovered and introduced by David Salman of High Country Gardens and is native to 26 states in the U.S.

Festuca rubra ‘Patrick’s Point’ is a low-growing fescue native to the West Coast. It is evergreen and has been a good, slow to spread grass in this area where it receives basically no summer irrigation intermixed with
Muhlenbergia rigens, another West Coast native grass. It is about 10 – 15″ tall and for maintenance I simply comb it out once a year with a rake.

Festuca ‘Beyond Blue’, a sweet really blue clumping grass that lights up on cold wet winter days. These have been reliable and pretty for me, although this photo does not do them justice. Full sun, about 14″ tall, drought tolerant.

Mix of Festuca rubra ‘Patrick’s Point’, Carex comans ‘Frosty Curls’ and Stipa barbata line a short path up towards the deck.

Carex testacea, orange New Zealand sedge. This is an evergreen clumping grass about 24″ tall. I love that it produces seedlings which I have observed are often much oranger than the parent plant. These glow in autumn, especially when juxtaposed with greens or silver blues. It’s a versatile grass but gets the best color in more sun.

The inner blades are olive green-ish turning brighter as they go. I sometimes rake through them to clean them but they are low-maintenance. These like average water.

Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass is a lovely wispy, light grass for full sun. It catches the breeze like no other grass, often appearing as waves across the garden. It reaches about 2′ in height, is evergreen in that it persists all winter but turns blonde/hay color. It can be cut back hard in early spring to freshen it when bright green foliage quickly emerges. It does seed around but is easy to pull out. It is a native to the southwest of North America, but has become a bit of a nuisance in some areas, so do your homework before adding it to your garden.

A mix of Nassella tenuissima and Festuca ‘Beyond Blue’ line the banks of the dry river bed, now obscured by plants.

Chasmanthium latifolium, northern sea oats is a tough old grass, often becoming a thug for some people. For me, I’ve had a few seedlings but not that many, although I do watch it closely. The dangling earring-like flowers make it worth growing. It reaches 2 – 4′ in height and does well with little water once established.

Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’, a grass I have a love/hate relationship with. I love it for this, its magnificent flowers that illuminate this meadow area like nothing else. I am tempted to rip it out every year, however, for its tendency to flop in the slightest amount of mist. Given a heavy rain in late summer, it’s basically on the ground. It receives very little irrigation from us, even still it’s a flopper. It is a deciduous grass at about 3′ tall. From what I understand it does not reseed readily. Be cautious of pennisetums for they do tend to seed around a lot and are considered invasive in some states, especially warmer climates.

Anemanthele lessoniana ‘Sirocco’, pheasant tail grass. This two to three foot tall grass has lovely coloration and is pretty much evergreen for me, but a little clean up makes it much better. I have noticed this year, the first time in five years, seedlings in a localized area. I’m allowing them to mostly remain as they are sited in the “meadow” and are an appropriate filler. It likes it on the dry side and likes to dry out between waterings if you water it at all. I don’t.

GRASSES FOR SUN TO PART SHADE

Uncinia rubra, red hook grass. This is a seedling from a more mature clump that doesn’t have as rich of a color as this. It is a petite grass at about 12″ or so high, native to New Zealand. It prefers some shade or if it’s in more sun, give it consistently moist soil. These do well in a part sun area behind the retaining wall along the berm garden where soil, on the downslope, is consistently wet and heavy. The “hook” part in the name is no joke – it will grab your pet as it walks by or your leg if you’re wearing shorts.

Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ is an award-winning evergreen slowly spreading grass for part shade to part sun. It looks good nearly all year, but a cold blast can burn the tips, I’ve noticed. It reaches about 12″ – 20″ high and is a nice, tidy ground cover alternative for wet areas. Where this clump is planted it is not particularly wet, in fact it’s south facing but in partial shade of a mature oak tree. One of those “solution” plants – easy and looks good, tolerating a wide variety of conditions.

Another carex or sedge, Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’. It does have golden variegation, although it’s not apparent in this photograph. It too prefers wet soil but has done fine, and even reseeded, in a rather dry area next to cistus which receive basically no summer irrigation. About 2′ tall and bamboo-like in its texture, a lovely deciduous grass with (really!) yellow coloration.

Carex comans ‘Bronze’ – or some version of it, as these were seedlings in gravel at work years ago, so could be crosses although they seem true to form. Larger than ‘Frosty Curls’ and looking to some like a dead grass, they definitely are subtle and not for everyone.

Evergreen and lovely with blue hues, it definitely adds contrast. These are sited in a fairly dry area under a Douglas fir tree and are also in part shade. I’d say Carex comans ‘Bronze’ is a pretty versatile grass.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Zebra’ is fantastic if you love the striped look but don’t want an 8′ tall grass. I had two of these in full baking sun but they did not thrive, so I moved them to a different site with open, high overhead shade from a canopy of maples and other trees, but plenty of sun. Like other miscanthus cultivars, this too has lovely fall color. They are planted in what seems to be the “golden wood” – an open woodland kind of setting with many gold-foliaged plants, set off by the purple of this Physocarpus ‘Diabolo’ and harmonizing with its neighbor Spiraea ‘Ogon’. 

A native grass, Juncus patens (I also have Juncus effusus) does well in sun or shade and is adapted to heavy soils. It is evergreen and textural in its round leaves and interesting flowers. It’s a solution grass for bioswales and even dry areas. Speaking of native grasses, I’m sure there are others here but I’ve had trouble identifying them.

Carex elata ‘Aurea’ (Bowles’ Golden), a golden grass about 2′ tall. It thrives in boggy conditions and is brighter yellow with more sun. This is in quite a bit of shade but stands out all the same against the base of a maple tree. It is evergreen but does look better with a little clean up in late winter.

It does have great flowers, by the way.

Carex flacca or blue sedge for it truly is a blue-ish grass. This is a slowly spreading grass for sun or shade, even dry shade. It is about 15″ tall and evergreen, I give it a good combing through in early spring to clean it up. Tolerates a variety of soils, but does better with some moisture. Here in full sun it is in rather heavy wet clay along the retaining wall and has done well for me.

Here is another clump in dry shade on a dull November day. Not looking its best but the color is better represented here.

SHADE LOVING GRASSES

Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’ is a sweet, small deciduous grass for shade. It is a cool weather grass and kind of looks ratty by the end of summer, but I like it enough to keep it. It pairs well with many shade lovers, and its broad leaves are a nice change of pace for a grass. It is about 12″ tall, I’d say.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is not a true grass but is called mondo grass. Rather, it is in the lily family but I include it here for its grass-like usefulness in mixing up textures. I have this in both sun and shade and the ones in high overhead shade do much better and thrive, so I categorize this as a shade lover. Evergreen, about 10″ tall, lavender flowers turning to black berries, it’s a great edging plant. I have found it to be tolerant of wet and average soil. It spreads by tubers and comes from Japan. I have a few other varieties of this genus, Ophiopogon planiscapus (think this only green), a dwarf form called O. japonica ‘Nanus’ and a white variegated form Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Hakuryu’.

Contrasting nicely with greens of the shade garden.

A young, not so great looking Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’. It is an evergreen sedge at about 20″ tall and spreads by seed. It glows in the shade and becomes more golden in more sun (but give it adequate water). Here it is sited in a rough, uncultivated part of the shade garden in hopes that it will fill in and out-compete weeds.

Carex conica ‘Snowline’, a sweet evergreen grass with narrow foliage and white variegation. It is only about 10″ tall (taller with the flower spikes), looks great all year and has stayed fairly petite for me after many years. This grass’s merits are many – it constantly looks great, is small,  is easy – just right for the front of a shady border, adding a bit of lightness to mostly green shade plants.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ – Japanese forest grass is an elegant waterfall of a grass that is fabulous in part shade. There are several varieties of this from ‘All Gold’ to ‘Beni-kaze’ to ‘Sunny Delight’ – all with varying degrees of coloration. This is a rather popular one with golden and green variegation. It is deciduous, turning hay colored right about now, emerging again in spring. It’s pretty easy if it’s happy – not too dry and good soil helps. It cascades like water, blowing in breezes. It’s light and airy, about 2′ tall at most. I also have the straight species which doesn’t burn in full sun in the gardens at work and also has spectacular autumn color. One specimen at work is about 3 – 4′ tall.

I have several lining a bed in the shade garden.

There you have it, a fairly complete inventory of grasses at Chickadee Gardens. I, for one, would not be without them. Where a lot of texture is fine and fussy, grasses help set them off, making everything surrounding them look better in my opinion. They are part of the collective image of a bucolic landscape – think rolling meadows and fields – and translate accordingly in a garden setting. Just some 30 years ago grasses were not really fashionable in the garden, they have only become so recently with such grass pioneers as
John Greenlee making a wider variety available to the public. Now, we have a wide variety from which to choose, thanks to John and others who embraced the many merits of grasses and saw a gap in the horticulture/nursery industry. On a side note, grasses tend to look horrible in nursery pots. If you can find what you think you are after, buy it and trust it to fill in as it should.

Also, there are fantastic grasses for lawn substitutes (many native), especially for water-sensitive places like California. Seek out appropriate ones for your region, they add so much to the landscape and require so much less maintenance and resources (water, fertilizer, labor) than traditional lawns. Plus, they are a boon for wildlife and biodiversity.  

A final note – the descriptions and inclusion in this post are my experience growing these in my climate. Every garden is different, every experience is too. I am no expert, rather a very enthusiastic novice who loves the look of grasses. 

That’s a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always, thank you for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you! What’s your favorite grass, if you have one? Happy gardening!

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Also in the garden but not listed here (no good photographs!):
Chionochloa rubra – great for sun, evergreen

Hakonechloa macra – shade to sun, deciduous, fall color

Molinia caerulea ‘Strahlenquelle’ – sun, deciduous, likes it wetter than I can provide

Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’ – slow grower, beautiful, small grass for sun

Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ – excellent upright steely blue panicum about 6′ tall

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ – great short panicum with red and warm colors

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Blaze’ – blue turning amazing fall color

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Prairie Blues’ – blue turning amazing fall color

And I bow my head in honor of all the grasses I’ve killed in my life as a gardener. There are many, kept in memory only, not on a list.