Whether spilling from an urn or bordering a stone walk, fringing a shaded pond or covering a sunny hillside, there are few plants in the garden that impart the sense of grace or the fluid motion of ornamental grasses. Their fine, linear structure makes an effective foil to coarser-leaved shrubs or perennials, and adds three-season visual interest. Striking in a mass planting, eye-catching as a specimen, these cultivated monocots are surprisingly low maintenance. Offering growth habits and colors aplenty, handling exposures from full sun to full shade, and tolerating a range of irrigation regimes, there is undoubtedly a long-leafed beauty prepared to infuse your yard with dynamic texture.
A Magnolia favorite, Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) is one of the unsung wonders of the Northern California garden. The sun-shunning foliage lives up to its name, maturing to a deep black, highlighted by lime-colored new growth. This clumping evergreen will reach some 12” high and wide, and is reliably cold-hardy. Diminutive pale pink flowers, followed by striking black berries, emerge in early summer. Provide regular water during the warm seasons.
The Cape Rush (Chondropetalum tectorum) forms a dense clump of reed-like stems about 4-5’ high and wide. The strongly vertical growth bears branched leaflets at the joints, lending a prehistoric air to this shade-dweller. Especially striking in aquatic settings, this false rush nonetheless requires very little water once it is established.
Fubuki Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra FUBUKI ‘Briform’) is a descriptive moniker—the first word translates “snow storm,” which is easily envisioned when admiring the white-striped foliage of this cascading shade perennial. Come fall, the creamy bands color up to a soft pink. More compact than the species, Fubuki will spread to roughly 16”, and not quite as tall. Ensure that this one has moist, well-drained soil for superb performance.
Heat- and drought-tolerant, Orange Sedge (Carex testacea ‘Orange Sedge’) is one of the best choices for a tough and nearly maintenance-free mass planting. New growth emerges a golden-green, turning orange in Autumn, and a toffee color over the winter. Mow this one before spring to rejuvenate the growth, or just let the new shoots infiltrate the bronzy clump, which will reach roughly 2’. In time, it creates soft hassocks of threadlike leaves that curl down to the ground.
Red Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) remains one of the loveliest perennial grasses, with tan and purple plumes swaying above rich red foliage in a 5’ clump. Once established, it demands little water. Though this graceful specimen does occasionally succumb to winter-cold in the North Valley, it is worth the risk. A green-leaved cultivar—‘Ruppelii’—is also available, displaying straw-colored seed plumes brushed with a deep rose.
Valued for its round, pincushion form, Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrihon sempervirens) is semi-evergreen in our region. The steel-blue clump will reach some 2-3’ at maturity, and prominently displays golden plumes over the erect foliage in spring. Moderate water over summer will keep this one looking great. It should not be overlooked as a container subject; the bold texture and silvery tones make an architectural statement in any setting.