Easy to Grow Perennials: Ornamental Grasses

The Low Maintenance Unicorn

Are you tired of tending to your perennials to keep them looking good throughout the growing season? What if I told you there’s a plant that needs care only once a year and requires only that you cut it down? And that once established, you don’t even need to water it? Yes, it’s true, this unicorn exists! It’s not just one plant; it’s a family of plants: ornamental grasses.

There is a myriad of varieties, and the versatility of ornamental grasses is unmatched in the landscaping business. Whether you’re looking for height or a groundcover in shade or sun, wet or dry conditions, there is an ornamental grass to fulfill your need. They have minimal insect and disease issues, are drought tolerant and require little maintenance and no supplemental watering. When it came to planting my very small patch of garden in an urban space, I took into account my schedule and the lack of time I could dedicate to the garden (and in all honesty, my laziness); what go-to plant do you think I reached for? You know it, ornamental grass!

Sun Loving Grasses

These tall sun-lovers are all clump-forming species that shine during the growing season and add texture in the winter season with their straw color; they look especially majestic when topped with tufts of snow in winter. They can be cut down close to the ground in spring, or if you really want to, in late fall, but you’ll be missing out on the winter interest if you do so.

  • Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ starts growing in early spring with lush green basal growth to 2’ and then has upright, wheat-colored plumes to 4-5’ in full sun/partial shade. Great when planted en masse, you can leave the foliage up for winter as it takes on a new beauty with snow-covered plumes.
  • Miscanthus varieties offer rapid vase-shape growth once the heat of late spring/early summer kicks in culminating in a graceful, arching habit, topped by beautiful, wispy flowerheads in late summer/fall; these too look majestic when snow covered. ‘Morning light’ is a trusty, neat standby with thin blades that grow to 4-5’. ‘Adagio’ grows to 2-4’ where a shorter plant is needed. ‘Purpurascens’ adds a tighter upright habit with stunning 3-4’ fall foliage turning orange-red. Great as a stand-alone plant or massed.
  • Panicum varieties have upright growth with airy seed heads in late summer fall. ‘Shenandoah’ has green foliage turning red in July and then deep crimson in fall while growing to 4’; ‘Cloud Nine’ has strictly upright blue green foliage growing to 8’.

Unique Ground Covers

These shorter varieties are my favorite ground covers for shady areas where you need some bright foliage.

  • Carex varieties – (technically these are sedges) ‘Ice Dance’ and ‘Kaga Nishiki’ are great clump forming, variegated plants to 12” that can widen out quickly and even colonize. Super easy to establish and needs nothing but a haircut once a year in spring before new growth and the cool, spiky flowering bodies emerge.

Shady Lawn Solutions

Looking to replace a shady lawn area where the grass won’t grow? Use Carex ‘pennsylvanica’ as an alternative. The razor thin blades look like our lawn turf, but don’t need mowing but once a year. How great does that play into my laziness theme? Pennsylvanica grows to about 8” and then flops over, making for an elegant mass in the landscape.

  • Hakonechloa – variegated (‘Aureola’) or bright chartreuse foliage (‘All Gold’) provides a wide tuft of light grass that moves with even the faintest of air movement. Great contrast in dark areas.
  • Pennisetum grows in full sun with a wide fountain shape, hence its common name of fountain grass. Great easy groundcover in diminutive sizes such as ‘Piglet’ and ‘Little Bunny’, up to the species which can be 3’ high and wide. Tried and true ‘Hameln’ is my favorite with its bottlebrush inflorescences coming about in late summer/early fall. The low sun in autumn backlighting these flowerheads is spectacular- a real treat and contrast to all the red and oranges of autumn.

An (Almost) Effortless Garden

With all the time saved by not having to tend to your newfound favorite family of plants, you can concentrate on the busy parts of life while knowing your garden looks great. There are countless others to mention but start with these and see how quickly your love for ornamental grasses will grow!