How to select annual grasses for your garden

October 9, 2015

Annual and ornamental grasses are a must-have in any flower bed or garden. Their crisp colours last all through the season as they withstand cool weather and rough elements. Here are some tips on selecting the perfect annual grasses for your garden.

How to select annual grasses for your garden

Ornamental grasses

If you want to grow annual ornamental grasses with the demeanor of flowers, the first candidates to consider are quaking grass (Briza maxima) and hare's tail grass (Lagurus ovatus). Both have a penchant for cool weather.

  • Planted in spring, quaking and hare's tail grass quickly grow from green slivers into tight bunches of leaves topped with showy flower heads. Left in the garden into summer, they will turn a tawny brown colour that becomes more beautiful when set in motion by the wind.
  • Quaking grass produces thin stalks up to 60 centimetres (25 inches) tall. Its flattened seed-containing cones dangle at the ends of the stems, resembling little rattles that flutter and shimmer in every breeze. To dry cut stems, simply place them in an empty vase, where they'll last indefinitely.
  • With a mature height of only 45 centimetres (18 inches), hare's tail grass is compact enough to use as an edging in difficult spots, such as along a concrete driveway. This grass earns its name from the fluffy five-centimetre-long (two-inch-long) seed heads that have the cottony texture of rabbits' tails. When cut and dried just as they lighten to buff brown, the stems will last for years.
  • The shiny, round, hard seeds give Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi) its common and botanical names. In late summer, arching sprays of flowers produce these seeds, green at first, then grayish-purple. They can be dried for winter use.

Gracious grains

Ornamental varieties of wheat make outstanding plants for an informal garden. They have a mature height of one metre (three feet) or more, and produce long-stemmed seed heads with unusually long awns, or "whiskers."

  • 'Black Tip' (Triticum durum) is a widely available wheat with dark black awns, while the light-coloured 'Silver Tip' (Triticale durum) is a wheat-rye hybrid.
  • There also are special varieties of corn (Zea mays) grown for their colourful foliage.
  • Varieties of so-called striped corn include 'Japonica' and 'Harlequin', both with cream, pink, and green striping on the leaves.

Although the plants, which grow to two metres (6.5 feet) tall, do produce ears, the fruits are not edible. This corn is strictly ornamental, so enjoy the colourful striped foliage in the summer garden, and then bundle stalks into shocks for fall decorating.

Half-hardy perennials

If you live in a cold climate where many perennial ornamental grasses are not winter hardy, you can try raising the few perennial species that grow fast enough from a spring sowing to be treated as annuals.

  • At 1.2 metres (four feet) tall, fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) has arching leaves and produces long beige plumes lightly blushed with lavender.
  • Slightly shorter, with deep red blades and rose-tinted plumes, purple fountain grass (P. setaceum 'Rubrum') makes a perfect upright specimen for a large container. Pair it with mounding and trailing plants, such as trailing petunias and ornamental sweet potato vine.
  • Feather- top (P. villosum) has a more elegant look than the other fountain grasses. Its creamy white, feathery plumes dance atop 60-centimetre-tall (25-inch-tall) plants. Unfortunately, the flower heads shatter when dry and cannot be used in arrangements.

All of the fountain grasses are perennials, but because they are tender, they are best handled as annuals. In mild areas, you can try growing them in containers and overwintering them by trimming the foliage in fall and storing the pots in a cool basement or garage.

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