Top Ten Ornamental Grasses

By John Markowski | September 14, 2016
Image by John Markowski
by John Markowski
September 14, 2016

John Markowski is a home gardener who uses his 2+ acre lot as experimental grounds for a variety of plants. His garden is dominated by ornamental grasses and native perennials, all of which have to be deer resistant and accepting of wet clay soil. John has no problems showing his flaws and often takes a comedic look at the life of a hardcore gardener. He is a husband, father and lover of all things sports and incorporates all of that into his blog when he is not obsessing over his garden.


My garden is dominated by ornamental grasses. It started out of necessity as they could handle the poor draining clay soil, all day sun, harsh wintry conditions and were completely ignored by the deer. But is has since evolved into me simply loving the hell out of them as witnessed by my numerous posts on the topic. They are the backbone of my garden.

-placead-A friend recently asked me “Which grasses should I plant this spring?” and I told him I’ll do you one better, I’ll dedicate an entire post to my personal favorites. A handy little guide for those who are just entering the OG world or are looking to add a few to their existing collection. My recommendations are solely based on grasses that have resided in my own garden as I’ve had the time to watch them mature and adapt over the years. There are definitely others I’ve seen in other gardens that I would recommend as well, but until I have a personal experience with them, I cannot comment.

I’ve dedicated posts to many of these individual grasses, so simply click on the name of the grass to read in greater detail. I’ve also included a few quick tidbits below about each grass.

Here are my top ten ornamental grasses (in no particular order):

northwind

Panicum ‘Northwind’

  • Grass remains completely upright all year long.
  • Reached full size (5″²-6″²) within three years after planting a tiny plug.
  • Underrated yellow fall color.
panicum-rots-1024x683-1

Panicum ‘Rotstrahlbusch’

  • First grass I ever planted.
  • My favorite fall “red”of all the Panicums
  • I’ve divided this grass numerous times with ease.
rots-flame-grass

Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’

  • The biggest head turner in Fall with its foliage color of red/green/orange.
  • The silver blooms are a nice contrast.
  • Looks fantastic with fall perennials (Dwarf sneezeweed in the photo)
indian-panicum-sage

Sorghastrum ‘Sioux Blue’

  • This towering native grass (middle of pic) reaches 7 feet when in bloom.
  • Took 2-3 years to establish, but now upright and stays that way through winter.
  • Individual blooms are interesting when viewed up close.
desert-pennisetum

Pennisetum ‘Desert Plains’

  • Only two years in with this one and it has already established itself well.
  • Great late summer/fall foliage color.
  • Tons of blooms starting in summer and they still look good into the winter.
grass1

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’

  • Reliable performer year after year. 9 years in for me.
  • Doesn’t hold up as well in winter as the other grasses.
  • A bit weedy like most Miscanthus.
og5

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’

  • Yes, you can find them everywhere, but there is a reason for that. Care free and upright and buff blooms all summer and into fall.
  • I like to squeeze one in between perennials as a great contrast in texture and color.
  • I divide all the time with ease and nothing but success.
k12

Schizachyrium (Little Bluestem) ‘Blue Heaven’

  • Great blue color in spring and then shades of pink and red in late summer.
  • Has handled early morning shade without issue.
  • Two years in with this one and I’m in love with it. Holds up all season including in winter.
molinia1

Molinia ‘Skyracer’

  • A slow to establish cool season grass but worth the wait. This one is all about the blooms as they get 4′ to 5′ tall and look killer at the back of a border.
  • Does not hold up in winter as the blooms break off.
  • Just planted ‘Cordoba’ for the first time which is allegedly even better than ‘Skyracer’.
andro1

Andropogon ‘Red October’

  • Another newcomer for me as we’re three years in. About 3′ to 4′ in height but should reach 6′ to 7′.
  • The foliage color is off the charts already. Red hues even in spring and then dark red in fall.
  • Seems slower to establish but it will be worth the wait. Only a few blooms to date.
And a few bonus “non-recommendations”:
030

Calamagrostis ‘El Dorado’

  • The picture to the right is this cool season grass at its peak. Short lived though as it becomes nondescript the rest of the year.
  • Nowhere near as solid as ‘Karl Foerster’
107

Panicum ‘Heavy Metal’

  • Maybe TBD is a better description. Nothing bad, just not as exciting as other switch grasses to date.
  • I haven’t seen much of a blue hue so far, just a drab green.
sea-oats-fall

Northern Sea Oats

“¢ Just read this and you’ll understand why I gave up on it.

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