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The New Grasses – Sep/Oct2016

The New Grasses - Sep/Oct2016

When Canadians were first introduced to the concept of planting tall-growing grasses in their gardens, many were unsure of what to make of the notion. Grass, after all, was what we referred to as the ground cover around the home. This ‘ornamental’ stuff was to be planted in the garden and only cut once a year – in the spring.


DRAMA | They can grow quite large, producing an interesting focal point in a sunny garden.

SEASONAL INTEREST | Do not cut down ornamental grasses in the fall as most will stand through the winter months, attracting song birds with their heavy seed heads.

INSECTS AND DISEASE | Tall grasses are quite resilient and there aren’t any pesky pests that are of significant bother.

DROUGHT RESISTANCE | There’s no need to worry about watering tall grasses when you go on summer vacation. However, ornamental grasses do need at least a half-day of sun.

DEFINING BOARDERS | Use tall varieties as seasonal screen or hedge, and shorter grasses to define garden space – much the way boxwood has been used for generations.

BETTER WITH AGE | Ornamental grasses belong in the same category as daylilies, monarda (bee balm), hostas, and the like – all of which mature over three to six years, at which time they lend themselves to dividing.

PLANT NOW | When planted in the fall, they will put down roots before a hard freeze up in November or December, thus providing a foundation for aggressive growth in the spring. Also, at this time of year, the plants offered for sale are in bloom, allowing you to see the flower and seed head before you actually plant it.

Ornamental grasses fall into two categories – travelers and clumpers. Avoid the former at all costs. A popular traveler is Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea), which looks great in a pot, but is a complete nuisance in the garden. It will travel through most any soil, under fences, over tree roots and into places that it has no business going. Ask your retailer if it’s a clumping grass before purchasing.

I can now say that I’m the proud owner of approximately 20 different types of ornamental grasses. I have a background in traditional garden design, more in keeping with the English cottage-style garden – and believe me; the Brits didn’t see this trend coming.


Blue Fescue (Festuca ovina) A reliable mounding plant. Use as a border or mass together. Mature height 25 centimetres.

Elijah Blue (Festuca glauca) Silvery blue. Matures to only 15 centimetres.

Sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’) Green/creamy white flowers in late spring/early summer. Grows to 30 centimetres.


Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) Blooms in May/June. Grey/blue flower with interesting oats as it matures. Grows to 70 centimetres.

Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrcda) Green foliage fading to red, adds interest all season long. Matures at 45 centimetres.

Porcupine Grass (Miscanthus sinensis) Also called Gold Bar due to the gold banding on green blades. Matures to 60 centimetres.


Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’) A very ‘cuttable’ flower/ seed head in green/yellow. Matures to two metres.

Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) A formal vertical grower that’s very dramatic if planted in a grouping. Also known as Karl Forester, it was named the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001. Grows to 130 centimetres.


Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. On June 30th of this year, Mark was appointed to The Order of Canada – one of our country’s highest civilian honours. Check out his book The New Canadian Garden. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and on Facebook. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at