Seven little grasses. A lucky number of outstanding little selections that promise myriad uses and have untold potential. We’re so used to using stately, cloud-grazing grasses that we tend to forget there are shorter varieties that fit neatly into today’s smaller garden spaces. There are dozens of them from which to choose, and these petite wonders are beautiful workhorses in the garden.
Select from the plants featured here, or check out those listed in the sidebar. They may be little, but we don’t have room to feature all of these exceptional plants!
Arrhenatherum elatius subsp. bulbosum ‘Variegatum’
Clump-forming striped tuber oat grass is a slow-spreading groundcover selection that reaches about 8 inches tall; up to 12 or 14 inches when in flower. Narrow green leaves feature dramatic white margins, and the plant can sometimes appear to be all white. Although the foliage and habit give the plant a spiky look, the leaves are actually soft.
Striped tuber oat grass is happiest in part to full shade, where it shines in contrast to darker leaved companions. It should be kept evenly moist, but can be drought tolerant once established. A cool season variety, it will go dormant in midsummer, but can be cut back during the warmest days to allow for fresh growth once cool temperatures return in the fall.
Hardy in zones 4 to 8.
Blue grama (sometimes called mosquito grass) is an outstanding choice for the low-moisture garden; because of its unique, horizontal seed heads, however, it’s a real standout in any setting. Waving like banners above gray- to blue-green, exceptionally narrow foliage, the elongated, purplish flowers turn tan to brown in fall, remaining ornamental well into the cold months. The cultivar ‘Blonde Ambition’, introduced by David Salman of High Country Gardens, features flowers that emerge a light chartreuse and turn pale blonde.
Blue grama performs beautifully in nearly any setting, but is especially suited to sunny rock gardens, the front of a border, as a groundcover—and even as a low-maintenance substitute for lawns.
Hardy in zones 3(4) to 9.
Tufted hair grass (what a great name!) develops a tufted mound of slender, clean, medium-green foliage that reaches to about 12 inches; when in flower, it’s only about 18 inches tall, but can reach even taller in optimal conditions. The wispy, light green inflorescences are nearly transparent, providing a delicate, lacy haze through which background plants can be viewed. In fall, the flowers turn tan to light bronze and form a dramatic cloud through the winter months.
Tufted hair grass is a cool season selection that performs well in full sun to light shade; its foliage serves as a good companion to plants with variegated leaves, as well as flowering natives such as Rudbeckia and Echinacea.
Hardy in zones 4 to 7, but is said to have reliably greater cold tolerance.
Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ has become one of the bread-and-butter, go-to plants of the American landscape, but there are other lovely fescues that deserve attention. If your clients insist on blue, try F. glauca ‘Select’, which shares the glowing silver-gray-blue hues of its close relative, or for a larger plant, F. glauca ‘Boulder Blue’ can easily win their hearts. ‘Boulder Blue’ grows to about 10 inches tall, with flower spikes reaching 12 inches in late spring or early summer. F. idahoensis ‘Siskiyou Blue’ bears the strong, gray-blue that’s a favorite among gardeners, but the foliage appears to be a bit less dense than other selections. Growing to about 10 to 14 inches tall, it has a rather formal appearance.
Festuca amethystine (tufted or hair fescue) boasts a greener shade of foliage, but mirrors the typical, ebullient growth habit of a rounded mound that appears to burst from the soil. True to its name, a cultivar called ‘Superba’ begins with bright blue foliage, then shows rich amethyst-colored foliage and flowers come bloom time.
For a tiny addition to the rock garden or the front border, F. gautieri (bearskin fescue) is the perfect choice. Medium to dark green, prickly, pincushion-like foliage grows only to about 2 to 6 inches tall in a tight, dense mound.
Most selections prefer full sun; many are reliably drought tolerant.
Hardy in zones 4 to 7(8).
Somerset hair grass holds its narrow, steel-blue to dark green foliage proudly erect, reaching to 10 to 12 inches in full sun to light shade. The plants form slender clumps that serve as excellent companions to sedums, alliums and other grasses. Planted in rock gardens or borders—even in containers with good drainage—this selection is a show stopper.
But it’s the flowers that really dazzle. Profuse blooms emerge from long and narrow but sturdy stalks, and the bright, greenish-yellow flowers are a highlight in the landscape. Blooms emerge in late spring to summer and form masses of bobbing and swaying plumes.
Seen in the foreground of this photo is another exceptional grass—Luzula nivea (lesser woodrush or snowy woodrush) — whose pure white flowers often are used in dried arrangements.
Hardy in zones 3 to 8.
Autumn moor grass, as its common name implies, shows off its best assets in late summer and fall with a dramatic display of silvery white inflorescenses that dance a full foot above the 12-inch base foliage. This cool season grass produces a nicely formed mound of yellow-green leaves in spring and enjoys full sun to part shade locations. It requires ample moisture to establish, but is reliably drought tolerance after that.
Throughout the growing season, autumn moor grass provides a beautiful accent in the border or in mixed plantings; it’s also a good choice for roof gardens and urban settings. It plays well with other, taller grasses, and is especially attractive when accented by autumn-blooming crocus. Once the slender flower spikes emerge, however, this grass has the stage all to itself.
Hardy in zones 4 to 7.
A slightly larger small grass, prairie dropseed reaches about 12 to 24 inches in softly clumping forms; when in flower, spikes can reach up to 36+ inches tall. Spring foliage is deep green with narrow leaves that arch gracefully downward. Flower stalks rise in midsummer to carry open, airy panicles that turn light tan in fall. Autumn foliage is a dramatic, fiery copper—a real standout in the garden.
Used as a groundcover, prairie dropseed is lush and inviting, but it’s also nicely suited to borders, slopes and use as a lawn substitute. This tough native plant is drought tolerant and low maintenance.
Hardy in zones (3)4 to 9.