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Splendor In The Grass
With their appealing forms and friendly waves, they endear us
Despite their dainty, hazy good looks, grasses that stay small and don't need constant dividing, such as Molinia caerulea 'Moorflamme,' are sturdy workhorses in the garden.
REMEMBER WHEN grass rarely meant anything besides lawn? Now ornamental grasses are a staple of the garden. We depend upon their movement and grace, as well as their ability to fill in problem spots with arching shapes and unusual textures. These most useful plants come in a dizzying array of sizes and colors, from the minuscule to towering, with stripes or spots, in chartreuse, burgundy and even black. While this great variety means there's a grass for nearly every condition, it also causes great confusion.

How to be sure you're choosing a knee-high type instead of one of those giant woody masses impossible to divide without a machete? How to distinguish between them when grasses have names like Calamagrostis, Helictotrichon, Eragrostis and Muehlenbeckia? And those are just the genus, not species or cultivar names. Botanists purse their lips and explain such names are meaningful, containing clues to color, cultivation and origin. For many of us, though, such names are forgettable impediments. To this end, I've grouped some of the most useful small grasses into what I hope are remember-able categories. All stay under 2 or 3 feet tall and have proven to be exceptional performers, ideal for edging, to finish off containers, to pair with perennials or mass as ground cover.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Fuchsia 'Chang' is one of the showiest hardy fuchsias, tolerating cold down to 15 degrees. It has soft leaves and dripping, tubular, orange flowers accented with touches of white and sherbet. Given the morning sun and afternoon shade it prefers, 'Chang' blooms profusely and sprawls to 3 feet tall and wide.
Evergreen grasses: These lend presence year-round, and their solid, splayed clumps, depending on placement, can look either naturalistic or formal. The golden variegated sweet flag (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon') is a moisture-lover that keeps its bright-yellow-striped blades through the seasons and grows only about a foot high. Most of the sedges are evergreen, tidy and easy to care for, including the bronze leather-leaf sedge Carex buchananii, the shimmery silver Carex comans 'Frosty Curls,' and one of my favorite golden grasses, Carex alata 'Aurea.' A cool note can be added with a handsome clump or two of blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens).

Early bloomers: In our moderate climate, we often have to wait until autumn finally pushes grasses into bloom. Notable exceptions are the chartreuse Bowles' golden grass (Milium effusum 'Aureum'), which spreads about the garden and blooms with the tulips and pulmonaria. I have to include one larger grass here because I count on its stately, buff-colored blossoms to mingle with taller perennials all summer long. Stipa gigantea forms a wide, low mound of foliage, with tall flower spikes that persist from early June until frost.

Exceptionally pretty flowers: The various fountain grasses are great to grow along walkways where they can be easily admired and petted. Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln' has bushy flower heads that look like soft little bottle brushes, as does its diminutive relative P. alopecuroides 'Little Bunny.' For a dark note, try the burgundy-bladed switch grass Panicum virgatum 'Haense Herms' with rich-red flower spikes spangled with dainty blossoms, ideal for late-summer and autumn flower arrangements.

Truly tiny grasses: Perfect for edging or in containers, Festuca glauca 'Golden Toupee' has springy tufts of yellow foliage so short it looks newly clipped by an overzealous barber. Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') has shiny, arching blades in glossy jet black, giving more oomph per square inch than any other plant I can imagine. O. japonicus 'Nanus' forms a neat little bump of textured green.

Simply Beautiful: Some grasses you have to grow for no other reason than they are just so very beautiful. Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' forms a fluid golden mound that takes on red tints in the sunlight. Along a pathway or flowing over the sides of pots, few plants create such a focal point all by themselves. Stipa tenuissima is a lacy little eye-catcher, with bleached-out buff blooms that rustle in the slightest breeze. Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') is an annual in our climate but well worth growing for its deep purple foliage and fox-tail fluff of flowers. Molinia caerulea 'Moorflamme' shimmers in the sunlight with a soft haze of bloom that makes it an archetype for the ephemeral, gauzy look — which is why we grow grasses in the first place.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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