Splendor in the Grasses


We at Spotts Garden Service are big fans of grasses. They introduce movement, texture, and sound into the garden, providing upright forms that counteract the horizontal planes of many perennials and shrubs. They are fantastic for winter structure; many of them stand up just fine under a heavy snow load. And it’s hard to get more low maintenance than most grasses, which just require that you cut them more or less to the ground in mid-spring.

Here’s our (admittedly biased) list of favorites. In general, these are well-behaved plants that play well with others in the mixed border and look gorgeous massed together.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Upright and narrow, ‘Karl Foerster’ stands up well to heavy winter snows and holds onto its plumes throughout the winter. More commonly called feather reed grass, it can take full to part sun. We like to mass it for maximum impact, although it can work well planted in a straight line, too.

Coreopsis and feather reed grass | Spotts Garden Service

Here, yellow tickseed (Coreopsis)  fronts a stand of ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

The rare grass that does well in full shade, Hakone grass can also handle sun. ‘Aureola’ is a golden variegated variety that lights up shady nooks. Its graceful, arching form plays beautifully against hosta and other shade perennials. It’s a low grower, topping out at about 18 inches.

Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’

Switchgrasses are substantial plants, their upright forms topped by fine seedheads. We love them, because they look beautiful with nearly anything you put near them. ‘Heavy Metal’ is a tall variety, hitting about five feet even before it blooms. The leaves have a metallic blue sheen that sets off reds and yellow-greens in surrounding plants.

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’

A slightly shorter switchgrass, ‘Shenandoah’ usually tops out around 4′. The deep-green foliage starts to turn almost burgundy by midsummer. The reddish cast makes it a knockout with heuchera, penstemon, and other plants with a red or purple tone. We’ve found that ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ are a bit more shade tolerant than most grasses, but try to give them at least part sun.

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln' on the left melds well with Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah.'

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ on the left mixes well with Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah.’

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’

A fantastic choice for mass plantings, this dwarf fountain grass is topped by soft, creamy seed heads from July on. It will grow to nearly three feet in sun or part-sun. Unlike most of our other favorites, ‘Hameln’ has a habit of dropping seed and spreading thickly, so plan to thin it out occasionally, and don’t plant it right next to the lawn. It’s super massed together in a wave or as a foil against broad-leaved perennials.

Sporobolus heterolepsis

Prairie dropseed is an Indiana native, and it’s at its best massed where the sun can backlight it. Its emerald green foliage has extremely fine texture, and it grows to between two and three feet tall. In the fall, the foliage turns golden orange, then fades to white in winter.

Amy graduated from DePauw University with a degree in physics, a lifelong love of theatre, and a problem-solving style that combines the approaches from both those fields. A Master Gardener and long-time communications professional, Amy conducts gardening seminars and blogs about gardening in addition to her work with Spotts.

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