As many of you know one of my favorite perennials for the garden is Ornamental Grasses. They add upright habit in the garden, the gentle swaying of the leaves add motion, and the soft rustling of the leaves calms even the most upset soul. I am going to list a few of my favorites today, but if you live in Northern NJ, stop by the James A. McFaul Environmental Center in Wyckoff and visit the Ornamental Grass Garden (something I created many years ago) to see the actual plants and their growing habits.
We will start this journey with the grasses that are green for most of the growing season, but deserve recognition for either their fall foliage color or their flower structure. The first is Briza media (Quaking grass). This 12" specimen will work well into the front of your border and in June you will be pleasantly surprized by the heart-shaped seed pods which are 12'' above the foliage. As the common name suggests, with the slightest breeze the seed heads "quake" and give animation to the garden. Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats) is also known for its seed heads, but more importantly it is a native grass that will thrive in a partialy shaded area of your garden. It grows to 30" and will reward you with excellent dried flowers for your arrangements. One word of caution: Northern Sea Oats can be a relentless self-seeder, so diligence is a must! Deschampsia caespitosa (Tufted Hair Grass) is a 12" clump growing grass which will reach 30" in height in flower. This grass is used for a visual tie in the front of your border, never interfering with the rest of your planting but always letting you know it is there. Panicum clandestinum (Deer Tongue Grass) is a 3 - 4' native that will tolerate shade. The wide leaves of this plant will give the garden the feel of bamboo without the running rhizomes to worry about. Micanthus sinensis purpurescens (Flame Grass) grows to 4 - 5'. While this grass has the telltale flower plumes of Miscanthus, the common name will say it all; it turns a bright red in the fall and will turn your head to that section of your property, not only to that section of your garden. Finally in the green is the ever popular Fountain grass of which I have two favorites; Pennisetum alopecuroides "Moudry" (Black Flowering Fountain Grass) and Pennisetum alopecuroides "Little Bunny" (Little Bunny Dwarf Fountain Grass). Black flowering fountain grass is 24" tall and has unusually dark colored seed heads in late summer/early fall. Little Bunny is 6" tall in flower and should be planted in mass so it will not get lost in your garden. Both plants have the characteristic fountain grass seed head, with Little Bunny's being only 1" long instead of 6 - 12" of the normal fountain grass.
In the blue spectrum I have four grasses that are worthwhile. The first is Agropyron megallanicum (Blue Wheat Grass). This 12" plant has a silvery-blue color which will work well when cross-planted with Artemesia "Silver Mound". The blue that you will most likely see at your local garden center will be that of the Blue Fescue, Festuca cinerea. The best cultivar of this is "Elijah Blue". Its powdery blue color and clumping habit will make this a necessity in any garden. The third blue is Helichtotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass). This 24" plant has the same silvery blue as the wheatgrass, but it is taller and more upright. A massing of Blue oat grass will attract your eye to that part of the garden that may be colorless in between flowering periods of other perennials. Panicum virgatum "Heavy Metal" (Heavy Metal Switch Grass) is a stiff, upright grass that will grow to 4 - 5' and has a metallic blue color. Just as with the flame grass, Heavy Metal will draw your eyes to that section of your property.
There are two red grasses that can be mentioned; one is Imperata cylindrica "Red Baron" (Japanese Blood Grass). This plant can be used for massing, where its red coloration will be a good border plant, especially in front of green conifers. This 12" plant does need full sun for good coloration, and it can also be a tad finicky in the winter, so don't believe the Zone 5 classification. The second is Pennisetum rubrum (Red Fountain Grass), an annual that has red foliage and flower spikes, the latter will turn a cream color in the fall. This plant will grow to 24" tall.
Variegated varieties of ornamental grasses only seem to add to the wonder of them. A perfect example of this is Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret' (Cabaret Japanese Silver Grass), which has wide, ribbon-like foliage with milky white striped centers. It grows to 6' tall and is topped by copper colored flowers in mid September. "Cabaret" does need to be cut down in the fall, since this particular variety is notorius for shedding it's leaves all over the place. Carex hachiojensis 'Evergold' (Evergold Japanese Sedge) is distinguished by bright creamy yellow, center striped leaves with an arching habit. This 12 - 16" plant will brighten any shady area in your garden, whether planted as a specimen or in mass. The bright yellow - green linear stripe along light green leaves gives Alopecurus pratensis var. aureus (Yellow Foxtail Grass) an almost lime green appearance. The 6-8" Yellow Foxtail makes a good filler and spiller, especially mixed in with spring bulbs. Miscanthus sinensis 'strictus' (Porcupine Grass) has unique horizontal golden banding that will grow to 4'.
So next time you are at a Garden Center looking for plant material, keep ornamental grasses in the back of your head as well. A good garden needs more than just an explosion of color!