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Grasses that Play with the Light and Dance in the Wind

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

sunset, ornamental grass, landscape, tree canopy
This photo came straight from my phone... grasses just catch the light so magically in fall.

Plant More Grasses

It's the texture. I love the texture of ornamental grasses. I love the way it plays with light and dances in the wind. Many are drought tolerant and deer resistant. Many can be split up into chunks and shared with friends. What's not to love?

Favorite Tall Grass

Let's just start with the crowd favorite. Sometimes plants are worth all the hype and Karl Foerster Reed Grass is just that. It grows perfectly upright so as to fit into many small spaces, 5' tall, sways in the wind but never breaks. This is the type of grass you cut down to the ground in winter. The only time I've seen it look shabby is when it gets too much fertilizer and water. But most of my garden designs do not request these parameters (excessive irrigation and frequent feeding, no thanks) so it's a pretty solid choice.

Reed Grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Favorite Flower

Wait, are we still talking about grasses? The "flower" of a grass is usually called a seed head or technically an inflorescence. I absolutely love the seed heads of ornamental grasses- subtle, airy, neutral. I would prefer to list my top 10 favorite seed heads here but shall force myself to pick just one: Grama Grass, Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition'.

ornamental grass, lounge chairs, landscape, trees
Grama Grass, Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition'

Favorite Grass for Shade

Most grasses prefer full sun. When a shady spot needs some texture, I reach for two grasses over and over: Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra) and Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Japanese Forest Grass is shorter and, when massed, reminds me of a rushing river. Northern Sea Oats is more upright and looks beautiful into the winter. In my experience, both do well in part sun (2-4 hrs) but not dense shade (zero direct sun).

Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) backlit by the low sun angles of fall.

Favorite Evergreen Grass

Hands down my favorite evergreen grass is Carex. Carex was my first introduction to grasses as I watched my mom dig up a clump of Carex 'Ice Dance', split it into ten pieces and replant them anywhere she wanted to fill space. (She taught me that the best way to have less weeds is to plant every square inch). Unlike the previous two grasses, you don't cut this one down in the winter. It can look shabby after a harsh winter but the new growth fills in quickly.

My dog Roxanne playing in the Carex grass

Favorite Rain Garden Grass

Again, I could write a top ten list for rain garden grasses... and I probably will at some point. But if I had to choose just one, it would be the toughest of the bunch. Juncus patens 'Elk Blue' can survive in 6 inches of water all winter long and then sails right through our summer droughts with no supplemental irrigation. Fun fact, this grass does not need to be in a rain garden and works perfectly well for an evergreen blue spike in any old planting bed.

Juncus, a rain garden grass, can thrive in a regular garden bed in Portland's climate.

Go forth and plant things! Need a plan? I can help with that.


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