Tough and tall, beautifully ornamental and reliably utilitarian. Or short and dense, and equally useful. Ornamental grasses are among the most versatile of plants, and when there’s an unfortunate spot in the garden, they can provide enough cover to distract from it. Gas meter or cable box? Utilities can be tucked out of sight — but remain accessible to technicians — with a grass curtain. Plant a stand of elegant grasses, and visitors will forget about that chain link fence. Need to separate one outdoor room from another? Build a wall with grass, or simply outline the space with a shorter selection.
They’re easy to grow and require very little maintenance once established, so the next time you’re called upon to hide something unsightly, check out a good grass.
Andropogon gerardii (big blue stem grass)
Big blue stem tops out at about 6 feet tall with a spread of 3 feet, and while its erect stature gives it a tall and thin appearance, Andropogon gerardii creates a proud and effective screen when planted en masse.
The species produces narrow, flattened, grayish green foliage in spring; this then matures to green with a hint of red in summer, turning to a deeper, red-bronze in fall. Flowering stems grow in late summer to reach above the foliage and produce purple flower clusters with three long “fingers,” said to resemble a turkey’s foot (a lesser-used common name is turkeyfoot grass). When flowers are fully on display, the plant can measure up to 8 feet tall.
Native A. gerardii grows easily in full sun, and tolerates a wide range of soils and growing conditions. Dry to medium, well-drained soil is best, and once established the plant is drought-tolerant.
The cultivar ‘Blackhawks’, introduced by Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens in Hebron, Illinois, is an outstanding selection with strong, dramatic color. Dark green spring foliage features purple highlights that remain throughout the warm season, turning to a deep, dark, nearly black maroon-purple. ‘Blackhawks’ reaches to about 5 feet tall with a spread of 2 feet.
Miscanthus sinensis selections (maiden grass)
Maiden grass seems to be a natural choice for screening and establishing boundaries in a larger landscape. Growers are quick to caution, however, that in many parts of the country, the straight species has a bad reputation for invasive tendencies and is, in fact, subject to rigorous removal campaigns.
Select cultivars have proved to be less likely to seed with abandon, and these make terrific choices. Jim Brockmeyer, of Bluestem Nursery in British Columbia, has recommended a few cultivars over the years, including ‘Blutenwunder’, but he also suggests using willows for the same purpose, as well as planting grasses and willows together.
M. sinensis ‘Blutenwunder’ (Blooming Wonder) is an early bloomer, with gracefully arching, clump-forming, medium-green foliage that reaches to about 6 feet; it can spread nearly as wide. When in flower, the plant can stand up to a proud 9 feet tall.
Feathery, ivory to silver plumes emerge in midsummer and tend to soften and curve or curl a bit as they dry. Left to overwinter, the plumes provide an extended season of ornamental interest.
Full sun is preferred; bright shade is tolerated. ‘Blutenwunder’ performs well in a wide range of soils as long as they are well-drained, and the plant needs just a bit of supplemental water, especially in drier locations.
If the plan calls for a maiden grass that’s a bit shorter, M. sinensis ‘Rotsilber’ (Red Silver, or red and silver) reaches only about 4 feet when not in bloom, and up to 5 or 6 feet when the plumes reach their colorful glory. The spread is approximately 3 feet.
Lovely arching foliage is medium green with a white midrib, providing a sense of movement and a slight flash of light. Fall color shows orange to maroon. The highlight of this selection is its impressive plumes, which emerge in August a rich, deep red and evolve to reveal silver tones. ‘Rotsilber’ also provides winter interest, and as with most Miscanthus, it should be cut back just when new growth begins to emerge in spring.
Best performance is realized in full sun, and moist, fertile soil is preferred.
Panicum virgatum selections (switch grass)
Leading the pack is ‘Northwind’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’), selected by Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin. It grows to 4 to 6 feet tall with a spread of 2 to 2.5 feet, and can be sited in full sun to part shade — but performs best in full sun.
Strong, upright foliage is olive- to blue-green, turning yellow with a tinge of orange in the fall. The foliage is strong enough to survive wind, rain and even heavy snowload without flopping; cutting back in the spring will encourage new growth. Soft clouds of flowers appear in late summer to early fall and remain throughout the cold season, providing showy winter interest.
Versatile ‘Northwind’ can be grown in a variety of soils and is drought-tolerant once it’s established. Well-drained soils are optimal, but this grass can tolerate short periods of sogginess. The grass is a favorite of birds; happily, deer tend to avoid it.
‘Northwind’ was selected as the Perennial Plant Association’s Perennial Plant of the Year in 2014.
Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, a close cousin, provides brilliant color early in the season, soon after the young green foliage begins to turn red. In fall, the plant stops traffic with its deep, rich burgundy blades. Pinkish red, airy blooms top the plant, bringing the 4-foot-tall erect clump to a possible 6 feet.
‘Shenandoah’ is easy to grow in full sun and average soils; given too much shade, the normally erect foliage may flop a bit.
Panicum virgatum ‘Thundercloud’ is a tall, upright selection that comes recommended by Shannon Currey, marketing director for Hoffman Nursery Inc., Rougemont, North Carolina. ‘Thundercloud’ has “a full bloom set, and good ornamental value with the toughness of switch grass,” Currey explains. In addition, “It doesn’t tend to flop, which is a plus with screening.”
Reaching up to 8 feet tall in bloom with a spread of about 4 to 5 feet, Thundercloud displays a mid- to late-summer explosion of airy, open, pinkish tan panicles that tend to remain well into the winter. It’s a cross between P. virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘Northwind’, but the blue-green foliage may appear to resemble the blue of P. virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ or ‘Heavy Metal’. Either way, the strong foliage resists flopping and can even withstand heavy rain and challenging winds. Foliage can be left to overwinter and provides cover for birds (it’s not a favorite of deer, however); cut back in late winter to early spring before new growth begins.
The plant has a medium to fast growth rate, and requires full sun for optimal performance. It should be sited in well-drained soil, but can tolerate a wide variety of soils, including heavy clay.
Height isn’t everything
Not every situation calls for a massive plant to hide an unwanted view. If there’s a small utility meter, or if you want to define a boundary without blocking a borrowed vista, shorter grasses can fill in. As with their taller cousins, these selections might not completely hide a blemish, but they do their best to camouflage. Oftentimes the mesmerizing swish and sway of an ornamental grass is enough to distract from the sorry sight behind it.
For its ability to entertain as well as disguise, Chasmanthium latifolium (northern sea oats, Indian woodoats) takes top honors. Reaching 3 to 4 feet tall (some sources say up to 5 feet) and spreading only to about 2 feet, northern sea oats is easy to grow in full sun to part shade and requires average, medium to wet, well-drained soil. Foliage is medium green and slightly arching — but it’s the seed heads that provide the real attraction.
Distinctive, flat, nearly scaled seed heads — resembling those of oats — emerge a soft green and dangle from slender, arching stems. As they age, the russet to tan spangles flutter and dance with the slightest breeze, sometimes offering a subtle and rhythmic clacking sound. They’ll persist throughout winter if they’re not cut for dried arrangements or plucked by hungry birds.
Calamagrostis brachytricha (reed grass, feather reed grass) stands only about 4 feet tall, but its outstanding plumage directs the attention to the plant and away from less attractive objects. Narrow, rather stiff, light- to medium-green foliage forms a fountainlike mound about 2 feet tall with a similar spread, followed in late summer by elegant pinkish flowers held proudly atop 4-foot stems. These fluffy, bottlebrush forms dance and bob, offering a cloud of soft color that remains vibrant until it matures to a light tan later in the year. Come fall, foliage lightens to yellow or tan.
Suitable for hedging or lining walkways and defining discrete areas of the larger garden, reed grass grows as well in light shade as it does in full sun. C. brachytricha can handle a variety of soils, but likes it moist; do not allow the soil to dry out. Need to hide a water feature pump? This is the plant.
Hakonechloa macra (Hakone grass, Japanese forest grass) is another “small” selection that serves to screen by virtue of its density. Reaching only about 2 feet tall in general, it can stretch itself to about 3 feet in optimal conditions. Its spread is about 1.5 to 2 feet.
No, it’s not a large plant, but the densely growing foliage forms clumps that can cover or disguise smaller, unattractive objects. Arching, bright green leaves grow narrow and long (about one-quarter-inch-wide by 10 inches long), and these cascading mounds form a mass of texture and color. Planted together, the plant forms seem to undulate much like a seascape in green and gold. Or, for those who remember old TV, a dwarf version of Cousin Itt.
Hakone grass is most comfortable in rich, consistently moist but well-drained soils, and it enjoys part to full shade; foliage will burn in full sun.
There are several cultivars that feature variegated foliage; ‘All Gold’ is a brilliant, nearly caution-light-yellow punctuation among other green foliage.