Beyond Lawns: Gardening with Specimen Grasses


Beyond Lawns: Gardening with Specimen Grasses
  • Posted September 25, 2014

Lawns serve an important function in the landscape, but they barely hint at the beauty and diversity found in the grass family. If they're not cropped with a lawnmower into a flat sward, the true character of grass comes out: tall, slender, supple and fabulously rich in texture.

The Wild Side of Grass

Grasses used as botanical specimens are often called “bunchgrasses," because they tend to grow in single clumps. For the purposes of design, we can consider all grass-like plants in this category; these include sedges, reeds and rushes. The colors found in this group of plants are astonishing: the foliage comes in buff, bronze, blue-grey, pink, purple and rusty orange.

grass bed


Unlike lawns, the seedheads are celebrated in specimen grasses. They complete the picture, rising above the foliage in a soft spray of color that sparkles with dew in the morning light.

grass seedhead feature

In the Landscape

Use ornamental grasses singly as container specimens or en masse as a groundcover. Where lawns are not needed for playing sports, low-growing bunchgrasses are a lush, meadow-like alternative. Planted closely and allowed to run together, their appearance is like that of a hummocky, windswept prairie; adding native wildflowers to the planting accentuates the effect.

grasses use as ground cover

Varieties with an erect growth habit are useful for borders around other plantings, as a substitute for shrubbery. The largest grasses grow over 8 feet tall, making them a viable option for a privacy screen.

grasses as a border

Some grasses are native to deciduous forests, where they enjoy a burst of growth in early spring before the trees leaf out and then bask in the dappled shade all summer. Mimicking this type of ecosystem in the home landscape is particularly effective with trees that have light-colored bark, such as birch, beech and poplar; plant the trees in a widely-spaced bosque to ensure enough sun reaches the ground.

underplanting of grasses


Species Sampler

Sea Oats Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata) and River or Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) — As their names suggest, sea oats thrive in sunny areas with sandy soils, while river oats like moist, shady areas; however, the appearance of their tall, pendulous seed heads bobbing in the breeze is very similar
Purple Fountain Grass 'Rubrum' Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') — Often used as an annual in potted arrangements, this grass grows up to 3 feet tall and wide with arching purple leaf blades; its soft, drooping seedheads resemble fox tails.
Pink Muhly Grass Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) — This trim and tidy variety goes well with purple fountain grass; its puffy pink seedheads emerge late in the season and can last until Christmas.

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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.


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Beyond Lawns: Gardening with Specimen Grasses

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