Ornamental Grasses
ripe persimmons in basket after a successful harvest

Ornamental grasses have stolen our hearts.  The grace and movement of grasses can enliven any garden style, from the most traditional to the most contemporary.  Here in California, the trend towards drought-tolerant and native-style gardening is highlighting the usefulness of grasses in our designed landscapes – their incredible variety of forms and textures make them stunning feature attractions or complements to other landscape plants.  Here are just a few of the grasses we love, as well as one author and Grass Guru whose work has made many of these grasses available to us in the landscape trade.

Young peaches may continue to ripen well into the winter

In the California Bay Area, many of our native ecosystems are dominated by grasses.  While some of these grasses die to the ground in the summer (a trait less desirable in the garden) others really shine throughout the hot months.  The coastal Mendocino Reed Grass is a lovely compact 12 x 18 inches.  With seed ‘tufts’ emerging white and turning gold, it puts on quite the show for a native grass!  We love it in California/Sonoma-style plantings and sunny borders, where it offers variety when mixed in with flowering plants.  Cut back in late winter for vigorous new spring growth.

For the formal garden, grasses can be used to accent or ground traditional garden plants, to create a feeling of lushness around the base of roses or in place of a hedge for a soft effect.  Fountain Grasses hail from Asia and offer a wealth of different cultivars.  Their fountain-like shape gives them a lush look, particularly in spring and summer.  Drier-looking autumn seed tufts can be removed by a discerning gardener or allowed to develop for a natural look.  Sedges (Carex) tend towards lush low-growing forms perfect for a formal border.  Check at your local nursery for available varieties.

Fountain Grass (Pennisetum) ‘Hameln’ has a lush green leaf that complements hostas and other traditional favorites.

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’

This evergreen is endlessly versatile and combines beautifully with these dark purple salvias for a twist on a classical look.

For a Sonoma-style garden, grasses can create atmosphere transitioning from traditional to meadow.  Here the warm colors of Carex testacea (Orange Sedge) combine with the energetic spikes of Muhlenbergia rigens (Deer Grass) and the sweet blooms of Hardy Hibiscus

As far as the contemporary garden is concerned, grasses are the new frontier!  With the range of varieties and visual effects, stunning results can be achieved with grasses alone.

Festuca glauca (Blue Fescue) is striking in combinations!  Its color can lend a Southwestern look or can compliment dark foliage and oxidized metal for a modern effect.

Here at our Alamo studio, we are installing a new meadow display garden.  A variety of grasses combine in this landscape, which shines year-round as native and non-native species take turns showing their stuff.  We are excited to bring this new style home to our studio so our clients can get to know the grasses in person.

For a unique effect with structure and textural interest, Juncus (rushes) offer a range of interesting foliage and flower types.  From stiff upright, to gracefully curving, to the crazy spiral curls of Juncus spiralis, they are anything but boring!  Here foamy flowers of native Juncus patens spill from a pot in our studio display garden.

 Many of the new grasses available for the landscape are the result of the work of horticulturists and naturalists whose appreciation for native grasslands have inspired the cultivation of these grasses. Horticulturist, designer, author and ‘Grass Guru’ John Greenlee’s advocacy for grasses in the landscape has enhanced the sustainability and natural aesthetic of landscaping in California.  Greenlee’s meadow gardens are comprised entirely of grasses, though some include flowering plants that float airily.  Redefining the designed landscape, climate-specific meadows dramatically reduce water use and create habitat and food for native birds.  Meadows take skill to design correctly, but in the long-term are a low-maintenance way of taking ornamental grasses to a whole new level!

Meadow Garden by John Greenlee, author of ‘The American Meadow Garden’ Photo: John Greenlee

For me, the draw of the meadow has to do with how meadows capture light and movement.  No other group of plants can do what grasses and grass ecologies do. John Greenlee