Wild prairie gardens are a good replacement for lawns. A popular gardener once said: “A garden looks not enough natural and romantic without ornamental grasses.” He was absolutely right. Today, using grasses opens the new horizons for landscape gardeners.
Almost all the ornamental grasses are tufted perennial with narrow leaves and panicle form inflorescences. These plants may have underground stems with shoots or form tufts and clumps.
Miscanthus (lat. Miscanthus sinensis) is also named as Chinese or Japanese Silvergrass and Maiden Grass. It is very popular in Japan, so can be used for prairie-style garden and for Japanese-style as well. Miscanthus is native to eastern Asia.
This grass is considered an iconic plant which blooms late in summer, often in August. In that time, the top of the tall (up to 6 ft (1.8 m)) stems are decorated with often purplish flowers gathered in tassel-like inflorescences. Its flowers can be used as cut and dry flowers.
Miscanthus grows very fast and may form clumps. It keeps its beauty all the four seasons.
Seeds are started in a cold frame in spring. You should divide seedlings in young age, because it can be difficult to do later.
Good-looking varieties of Miscanthus:
- ‘Variegatus’ has attractive many-colored leaves.
- ‘Kleine Fontane’ has the narrow arching leaves with white midribs. In fall, leaves turn yellow, red flower heads turn silver.
- ‘Graziella’ is a German selection. Its flowers are silvery-white with a touch of pink.
- ‘Silberfeder’ is one of the cold tolerant varieties of Miscanthus. It is tall up to 6.5 ft. (2 m) high.
- If you live in areas with warm winters you should try ‘Gracillimus’ – a very beautiful variety with an elegant form and narrow leaves.
- For those, who like originality, I recommend ‘Zebrinus’. This plant has striped leaves. It gives copper-colored flowers in September. It is tall up to 7.2 ft. (2.2 m).
- ‘Morning Light’ is one of the oldest varieties known from 19 century. It is middle sized, grows up to 5 ft. (1.5 m). The plant gives pinkish flowers in September. This variety can grow near the ponds.
Molinia (lat. Molinia arundinacea or Molinia caerulea) looks like a spring rising under the ground. It is also known as Moor Grass.
This plant is medium-sized – grows up to 3.2 ft. (1.5 m). It is very popular for years because of its striking form.
Molinia growing in shade can self-sow, but on the full sun areas it does not. It is native to Europe and Asia. This plant is very easy-care.
Attractive varieties of Molinia:
- Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’ grows up to 1-3 ft. (0.3-0.9 m). Its slim, yellow flowers appear in summer. Each inflorescence lives till the fall, when turning a tan.
- Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea ‘Sky Racer’ is a large variety grows to 6-7 ft. (1.8-2.1 m) height. It is great for hedges. In fall, it demonstrates outstanding yellow color of leaves.
The majority of Molinia varieties are tall, so can be used for hedges and borders.
Stipa (lat. Stipa tenuissima) is also known as Texas needle grass or Mexican feather grass.
Stipa has linear pale yellow-green leaves and feathery flowers. This plant is very good for wild gardens. It can be also used for rock gardens. It grows up to 2 ft. (0.6 m).
The plant gives flowers in July or August. Flower colors are silver-green and blond in fall.
There are around 300 varieties in Stipa family. In landscape gardening, we use Stipa tenuissima, Stipa gigantea, Stipa sibirica and others. You can buy any variety you find.
Deschampsia (lat. Deschampsia cespitosa) is also called tufted hair grass. It grows up to 2-3 ft. (0.6-1 m). Bloom time is in July-September. Flower colors may vary. This plant can grow in part-shade areas. It is native to North America and Europe.
Interesting varieties of Deschampsia:
- ‘Bronzeschleier’ is the largest of all the varieties of Deschampsia. It may grow up to 5 ft. (1.5 m). Its flowers change color from green to bronze. This variety is very stable.
- ‘Goldschleier’ is very attractive variety with golden flowers. The tips of leaves are dark-red. A plant grows slowly, so cannot be invasive that is very good for small gardens.
- ‘Schottland’ is a strong and stable variety with dark-green leaves and yellowish flowers. It grows up to 3 ft. (0.9 m).
- ‘Northern Lights’ was selected in state of Nebraska. It has very interesting gray and gold foliage turning golden with pink tips in fall. Its tiny flowers appear in the early summer. This grass can grow in shadier areas. Its height is from 1 to 3 ft. (0.3-0.9 m).
Calamagrostis is also known as reed grass. The plants have different height. They can be 1.6 ft. (0.5 m) and 6 ft. (1.8 m) as well. Their leaves are bright-green. The color of inflorescences can be greenish, creamy, brownish, pinkish or even purple and silver.
In landscape gardening, we use Calamagrostis acutiflora, Calamagrostis epigejos, Calamagrostis stricta and some others. The majority of varieties are cold-tolerant.
A few popular varieties of Calamagrostis:
- Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ shows its flowers in June-July growing up to 6.5-8.2 ft. (2-2.5 m). This variety is very popular among the gardeners all over the world. The grass is extremely beautiful keeping its decorative appearance till the late fall. It grows well on sun and part-shade areas.
- Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Overdam’ has variegated foliage (green and white). It grows medium height, gives flowers in June-July when becomes tall up to 4.1-5 ft. (1.25-1.50 m).
Zoysia is a genus of grasses native to Asia and Australia. It is popular to use this grass for lawns, but only in temperate climates.
This plant is useful when it is needed to stop erosion on slopes or repel weeds. In a prairie-style garden, it can be used as well as a plant for edges or foreground areas.
- ‘Emerald’ is a popular hybrid used in gardens.
Hordeum is well known plant growing all over the world. In landscape design, we use commonly one variety – Hordeum jubatum also known as foxtail barley.
We can find it in the wild northern North America regions. It is grown as an ornamental plant for its beautiful inflorescences.
This plant produces bushy clumps of green foliage. In midsummer it shows silvery-pink, feathery plumes waving on the wind. Hordeum grows up to 2 ft. (0.6 m).
Pennisetum is a widespread plant from the grass family. It is native to the warm regions, but naturalized in North America and Europe as well. It is also called fountain grass.
Some varieties of Pennisetum are petite while others can be very tall. The inflorescence of Pennisetum is dense and narrow panicle.
Some attractive species and varieties of Pennisetum:
- Pennisetum setaceum (African fountain grass) and Pennisetum alopecuroides are used as an ornamental plant. They are native to Asia. These plants may not survive a cold winter (hardiness zone 5), so they are needed to be covered. The good news is that their varieties are not very tall – from 1.3 to 2.6 ft. (0.4-0.8 m).
- Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ is also known as Chinese fountain grass. It has very attractive cylindrical panicles with purple spikelets which appear in late summer.
- You may also like ‘Woodside’ with dark-green leaves turning buff in winter. Its panicles are pinkish, they appear in late summer.
- Pennisetum orientale is closed to the previous variety, but it has grey-mauve flowers. These plants grow up to 2 ft. (0.6 m) and have a very good look.
Pennisetum as well as Hordeum can be started from seeds. The process for Pennisetum is the same as for Hordeum.
Schizachyrium (lat. Schizachyrium scoparium) is also known as beard grass or little bluestem. It is native to most of the United States. It is the true plant from prairies.
The plant grows 2-4 ft. (0.6 m) height and 1.5-2 ft. (0.4-0.6 m) spread. Its bloom time begins in August. Flowers are purple-bronze. Many gardeners love this plant for its orange fall foliage color.
Festuca is a very large genus of grass family. Plants can grow tiny or tall from 4 to 80 inches (0.4-2 m). Small varieties are used for lawns.
Festuca amethystina, Festuca cinerea, Festuca glauca can be used for rock gardens. As a single plant we can use Festuca gigantea.
- Festuca amethistina grows up to 2 ft. (0.6 m). It forms a well-shaped clump. A plant has blue-green or gray-blue leaves. It shows purple-green flowers in June. Festuca amethistina is popular plant, so we can find its interesting varieties like ‘Superba’ or ‘Bronzeglanz’.
Festuca is a low maintenance plant. We can find very different varieties and hybrids on sale. Almost all of them are good. When you make a choice, look at a hardiness zone to be assured of plant’s cold resistance.
11. Pampas grass
Pampas grass (lat. Cortaderia selloana) is native to South America. It is a tall grass growing up to 10 ft. (3 m) with green or silver leaves and dense white panicles.
The plant is very adaptable and can grow almost anywhere. Pampas grass is very high, so it can be used only as a hedge plant in a large garden. I have never used it personally.
Imperata (lat. Imperata cylindrica) is a small widespread genus of subtropical grasses. It has silky silver inflorescences which appear in August. The plant can grow not only on sun lighted areas, partial shade places are good for it too.
- ‘Red Baron’ is an unusual grass with very ornamental leaves – they are green at the base and red on the tips. It grows up to 12-18 inches. (0.3-0.4 m), so it is good for borders and may be used as a ground cover.