Great landscapes are a visual banquet of colors,
textures and three-dimensional designs. Great
landscaping is an art. The canvas is our property, and
our paints are the many plants that we spread across the
beds, borders and lawn areas.
Beautiful landscapes include a variety of colors in bold
swaths. They include plants of numerous sizes and
shapes. They also feature a variety of textures as broad
foliage contrasts with fine-textured foliage to add
interest to the picture we are creating.
Ornamental grasses provide fine, linear textures to the
scene. Their long arching foliage contrasts with the
broad leaves of most other plants. Many ornamental
grasses produce feathery or wispy seed heads which are
especially attractive when covered with dew or frost.
Grasses are attractive during the growing seasons, but
many provide unique winter interest. One of my favorite
features of ornamental grasses is their graceful
movement in the breeze. You've no doubt seen the waves
created by wind in a wheat field. The movement of a
large clump of grass is likewise unique, adding a
peaceful feel to the landscape.
These plants are becoming quite popular in our Texas
landscapes. If you haven't utilized some of these
versatile plants in your home landscape, now is a great
time to add some. Here are a few of my favorite
ornamental grasses for Texas.
Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) makes an
attractive clumping grass that at 2-1/2 feet tall and
wide is compact enough for many landscape locations. In
fall, white fluffy seed heads appear to decorate the
mounded plants like fuzzy foxtails. The variety 'Moudry'
has black-tipped bloom heads that are quite ornamental.
But be forewarned: it is a vigorous reseeder, and
gardeners should be warned about its potential for
invasiveness. A form with whitish plumes called 'Hameln'
does not have the invasive tendencies and is an
attractive, well-mannered garden plant. The dwarf
variety 'Little Bunny' stays under a foot in height.
Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') is
taller growing, reaching to a height of about 4 feet.
The deep reddish burgundy foliage is topped with lighter
burgundy bloom heads in summer and fall that arch over,
gracefully pointing in the direction of the wind. Purple
fountain grass provides a very striking break to the sea
of green found in most landscapes. Its bold color is a
real attention-getter although, unlike dwarf fountain
grass, it is not dependably hardy in most areas of zone
8. Nevertheless, even as an annual it is worth planting.
This plant is a show-stopper in the landscape and makes
an excellent specimen plant.
For an annual treat include ornamental millet (Pennisetum
glaucum). The 2003 All America selection 'Purple
Majesty' sports broad strappy dark purple foliage and
bloom heads that point straight upward.
Pennisetums need moist soil conditions and plenty of
sunlight. A little boost of fertilizer occasionally will
help encourage good growth and vigor.
Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) forms rather
inconspicuous 1- to 2-foot tall plants that take center
stage in late summer through fall with 3-foot tall wispy
bloom heads that appear dark purplish from the sunny
side and really light up with a bright pinkish ruby
color when backlit. Plant it where the rays of the
rising or setting sun will shine through the seed heads
to light them up like ruby-colored smoke rising above
the foliage. Because of its small stature, it can be
used in many landscape situations where a larger
ornamental grass would not work. Gulf muhly is not very
drought tolerant and does best with moderately moist
soil and good drainage. Provide it a full sun exposure.
Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) stands about 4 to 5
feet tall with large fine textured seed heads that reach
to 6 feet or more in height, giving the entire plant a
soft wispy look. The plants appear as light-green
arching mounds. In winter the stalks turn straw-colored
for a nice winter feature. When frost settles on the
seed heads, they light up in the early morning sun.
Provide this muhly a part-shade to full-sun location. It
can take moderate drought.
Big muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri) bears the name of
the father of Texas botany, Ferdinand Lindheimer. It
forms 3- to 5-foot clumps of blue-green foliage with
narrow seed stalks appearing in late summer and fall.
This muhly is a good alternative to pampas grass
although much smaller in stature. It is quite drought
tolerant and loves a full-sun location.
Deer muhly (Muhlenbergia rigens) is, in a sense, a
smaller version of Big muhly, reaching only about a foot
tall. It is also drought tolerant and will grow in part
shade to full sun. This muhly makes a good choice where
a smaller ornamental grass is desired in a low-care
Miscanthus sinensis is perhaps the favorite of all
ornamental grasses. Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus')
forms 5-foot tall mounds of long narrow foliage. In late
summer, copper-colored bloom heads appear above the
foliage, providing beauty and graceful movement with the
slightest breeze. Left over winter the foliage and seed
heads turn a beautiful golden straw color. This makes
for a beautiful feature all winter long, especially when
frosts form on the seed heads.
The many other forms of Miscanthus offer quite a variety
of ornamental interest. Zebra grass (M. sinensis 'Zebrinus')
and porcupine grass (M. sinensis 'Strictus') have broad
yellowish bands across the long narrow foliage. Silver
grass or variegated maiden grass (M. sinensis 'Variegatus')
is very bright with stripes of white and green running
lengthwise down the arching blades. For tighter spaces
M. sinensis 'Little Kitten' forms a mound of foliage a
little over a foot high with seed heads rising above the
foliage. M. sinensis 'Adagio' is a little larger,
forming a 2- to 3-foot mound of foliage. These grasses
enter their "second season" in late summer through fall
as their fuzzy seed heads emerge above the clumps.
Plant Miscanthus in full sun. Once established its
watering needs are minimal. Fertilize lightly and
occasionally to promote moderate vigor.
OTHER GREAT GRASSES
Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) is a
beautiful ornamental grass equally suited to use as
individual clumps or massed as a groundcover for sunny
areas. Its wiry, fine-textured foliage reaches a height
of about 18 inches. Seed heads appear among the foliage,
adding a wispy, feathery appearance to the mound and
adding a unique texture to the landscape. This Texas
native is evergreen but will go dormant in summer if not
watered. I can't think of a better, pest-free, carefree
choice for a natural area, or, if you like, for a
unique, attractive specimen in a large container or
traditional planting bed.
Inland seaoats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is one of the
most shade- tolerant ornamental grasses. Its seed heads
look like oats, bending the stalks over in a beautiful
arching form. Their stalks make nice additions to dried
arrangements. It is well mannered in dry shade, but if
provided rich soil with extra water and fertilizer it
can become overzealous, spreading beyond its area.
Ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis) is a relative newcomer
in many Texas gardens. Its pink seed heads rising above
the small clumps of silvery blue-green foliage are
striking. 'Pink Crystals' is a popular variety. Hardy
only to the mid- to low 20s, it is an annual in the
northern third of the state and a perennial in zone 8
I have deliberately ignored Pampas grass as it is a
monster, reaching to 8 feet or more tall and becoming
unmanageable as it gets older and the interior dies out.
However, for folks that love the plumes, there is a
smaller, finer-textured variety called dwarf Pampas
grass (Cortaderia selloana 'Pumila') which reaches only
4 to 6 feet tall with 6- to 7-foot flower plumes. It
blooms better than the common type. You'll still need to
prune the razor-sharp foliage periodically to keep the
plants looking fresh and attractive.
DESIGNING WITH GRASSES
Ornamental grasses make excellent specimen plants. Their
fine lines are a great contrast to the broad foliage of
other garden plants. Include them with perennial
hibiscus, cannas and other large-leaved species for a
Choose variegated forms to use around dark-foliaged
plants, especially as a foreground plant so the dark
backdrop can showcase the grasses' narrow leaves and
Some grasses make great container plants. Select a
container large enough to accommodate the particular
grass you choose. Keep in mind that you'll have to water
potted grass more often to maintain healthy green
Ornamental grasses are great lining a planting bed.
Choose the taller ones for use as a backdrop for other
plantings. And, as I mentioned earlier, consider
lighting. Most of these grasses need lots of sun to
perform well. Their best ornamental effect is when you
can enjoy them both frontlit and backlit at certain
times of the day. Go out to a patio or other sitting
area and consider where a grass either in ground or in a
large container might provide the desired effect.
Ornamental grasses can get rather untidy in time as old
dead foliage is left among the new living leaves and
seed heads. Cleaning them up will really keep them fresh
and attractive, even if just done once a year.
In late winter, prior to the onset of new growth, trim
the clumps back to 6 to 12 inches high depending on the
original size of the plant. Use the trimmings for mulch
around the garden or compost them.
While some commercial landscape care companies do this
trimming in early winter, I prefer to wait until late
winter for most types of ornamental grasses so I can
enjoy their winter interest rather than look at the
stump-like clumps all winter long.
Ornamental grasses can be divided almost any time of the
year if provided a little TLC during the hottest months.
The best time to divide the clumps is in late winter to
early spring. Simply dig a clump and then use a shovel
with a sharpened edge or a sharp butcher knife to cut
the clump into several sections. Reset them at the same
level they were growing previously and water them in
well. Fertilize the newly set sections with a couple of
tablespoons of lawn fertilizer 2 and 4 weeks later,
watering it in well after applications.
Consider adding some ornamental grasses to your
landscape. The above species and varieties are but a few
of the many wonderful choices available. Late summer
through fall is an excellent time to plant them.