Grasses for small gardens

By BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine

Swathes of tall, wafting grasses look wonderful in large gardens, but they can also be used to great effect in a small space.

It pays to be bold when using ornamental grasses, which tend to work best dotted throughout border schemes, mingling with other plants. Many will look good until the end of autumn, undergoing subtle colour changes as the seasons progress.

The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, having evolved to cope with every conceivable soil and site. This means you can choose species that suit your garden conditions, as well as your taste.

Discover our pick of grasses for small gardens, below.

Molinia caerulea

Our native purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea first flowers in May and adopts subtle shades of green, blue and purple. However, as its flower stems head skyward they change to gold, and when they extend and open, they start to shimmer. The plants that make the greatest impact are bred from the subspecies Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea, which is much taller. Molinias are the most versatile of grasses, and the changes in light from dawn to dusk, or from storm to glorious sunshine, give them different guises. Plant them against a dark background to enjoy the full benefit of their sunlit golden stems, but make sure you can see them silhouetted against a brilliant blue autumn sky, too.

Molinia caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’ bears vertical, needle-like foliage and refined upright flower stems, this molinia forms a compact clump that’s ideal for a small space. You can also see through it, to other treats growing behind.

Flowers: July-November
Height x Spread: 75cm x 50cm

Molinia caerulea subsp caerulea 'Edith Dudszus'

Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’

Miscanthus sinensis

The two best reasons for growing miscanthus are their statuesque presence in the garden and their magnificent flowerheads, or inflorescences, which last for months, making a striking feature from late summer into winter. Some cultivars, such as ‘Flamingo’ have silky pink flowers that cascade softly, while others, such as ‘Nippon’, have more upright spikes in a deep bronze-red. Neither of these is too big for a small garden and there are several other compact varieties. ‘Kleine Fontäne’ and ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ both grow to shoulder height. They bring light, air and movement into even the tiniest garden and since they grow upwards, they take up no more space than a clump of hardy geraniums.

Flowers: July-November
H x S: 120cm x 50cm

Miscanthus sinensis Kleine Silberspinne

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’

Imperata cylindrica

A brilliant addition to any hot-coloured planting, Imperata cylindrica spreads by underground rhizomes, but grows so slowly that it will never wander too far in our climate. Give it deep, fertile soil with plenty of humus to keep it happy.

Flowers: June-August
H x S: 50cm x 50cm

Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron'

Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’

Hakonechloa macra

With its long pointed leaves, Hakonechloa macra must be the most elegant of grasses. It’s always impeccably groomed, with never a blade out of place. Brilliant in containers, it’s probably most effective when giving a solo performance. Grow it in sun or part-shade.

Flowers: July-September
H x S: 35cm x 40cm

Hakonechloa Macra

Hakonechloa macra

Melica uniflora

One of the prettiest grasses for shade, its dainty owers are widely spaced along its branching stems. It’s a woodlander and if you choose the variegated form, the silvery tones of the foliage and inflorescences will stand out even more in shade.

Flowers: May-July
H x S: 40cm x 40cm

Wood melick (Melica uniflora)

Wood melick (Melica uniflora)

Milium effusum ‘Aureum’

Milium effusum is ideal for adding zingy colour to a shady border. It self-seeds readily and looks especially effective in spring, when the dark ground is sprinkled with bright new seedlings. In summer its dainty owerheads dance on the breeze.

Flowers: May-July
H x S: 60cm x 30cm

Milium effusum 'Aureum'

Milium effusum ‘Aureum’

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ is covered in fluffy flowerheads from midsummer onwards. Despite its delicate appearance, it’s totally hardy and extremely tolerant, even of heavy, damp soil.

Flowers: July-September
H x S: 120cm x 100cm

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’

Pennisetum orientale

If you have dry, hot conditions, you may get away with growing pennisetums. Pennisetum orientale has arching, fluffy heads of pink and crimson, wonderful with a dark sedum. Anpther one to try is Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Herbstzauber’. Its multiple fluffy flowerheads look like furry caterpillars.

Pennisetum orientale

Pennisetum orientale

How to grow ornamental grasses

Raising from seed – scatter seeds over the surface of damp seed compost and cover lightly with grit. Once the seedlings are sturdy enough, prick them out into modular trays and grow them on.

Dividing plants – many grasses can be increased by division, but do this in spring – never in autumn or winter. With some grasses, lift the whole clump, then pull or chop it into pieces. It’s best to pot up the resulting divisions, rather than planting them straight into the ground, as they will have a much higher chance of survival.

Growing in pots – when planting in containers, use a loam-based compost and make sure there’s good drainage. Generally, grasses don’t need feeding, but in containers an occasional dose of a weak liquid fertiliser will help them thrive.

Cutting back – never cut back evergreen grasses – simply comb out dead growth with your fingers. Molinias don’t need cutting back, as they simply collapse, however miscanthus, calamagrostis and panicums should be cut down to the base in spring.

Cutting back ornamental grasses


Author: Dennis Hickey

There are no limits to success to those who never stop learning. Learning will nourish your personal growth. I hope you enjoy this website and visit often so you too keep learning and growing.

%d bloggers like this: