Column: The Garden Girl – Ornamental Grasses

September 27, 2015 14:00 pm · 14 comments


This time of year our Claycord landscapes surrender themselves to the swaying plums of ornamental grasses. These grasses can be seen throughout our city providing texture, movement and grace where ever planted. Unlike flowers, groundcovers and many trees, the slightest breeze brings an ornamental grass to life.

Installing ornamental grasses to a landscape, hillside or container will add much needed interest to the site’s overall look.

Red Fountain grass is quite possibly the most popular ornamental grass installation for the entire area. Folks adore the reddish brown foliage and rose-colored plumes. Pennisetum Setaceum ‘Rubrum’ is the botanical name for this fountain like ornamental. At maturity, you should expect Red Fountain grass to reach 5’ tall and wide. Red Fountain grass dies back during the winter months. The blades become brown and dry. This is part of its cycle.

Resist cutting your Red Fountain grass back until the middle of March, if you can. The dry foliage protects the center of the plant from taking on too much winter rain water.

Occasionally, extended period of freezing temperatures may kill your Red Fountain grass entirely.

It won’t happen every year, and the summer success makes that ornamental almost irresistible and worth the risk.

Mexican Feather grass is a super trendy ornamental grass with a silky, thread-like texture. This selection provides tons of movement in the landscape. Many use Mexican Feather grass to highlight a walkways, dry-river bed, oversized boulders or retaining walls. Stipa tenissima is the botanical name for Mexican Feather grass and you can expect your clumps to grow almost 2’ tall and 12-18” wide. It likes full to partial sun and is drought tolerant once established.

Karl Foester Calamagrostis is commonly called Feather Reed grass. This selection makes an awesome hedge or screen, reaching 6’ tall while in bloom. The purple-ish plumes of Karl Foester pairs nicely with its deep green foliage. This ornamental grass is both deer and drought tolerant. Karl Foester Calamagrostis grows from the center out, and will need to be divided every few years to prevent the hole-in-the-doughnut effect. It may sound like extra work, but the results are worth it.

Blue Fescue and several selections of Carex grasses have become quite the rage since many are removing their lawns and opting for water-wise plant material. Blue Fescue is a predictable ornamental grass, depending on the selection you can expect growth from 8-16” tall and wide. The color of the foliage is what sells the Blue Fescue. The bluer the better. Look for selections such as Boulder Blue which has a metallic blue color, or Elijah’s Blue which is a true blue. Carex is available in greens, variegated, bronze and orange.

Folks get ornamental grasses and grass-like plants confused. Phormium, also known as New Zealand Flax and Cordyline, known commonly as Yucca are not ornamental grasses. Rather they are evergreen plants with grass-like foliage.

Ornamental grasses incorporated in a landscape adds a lot of interest to the area. They are readily available, drought tolerant and easy to grow. Read up on mature sizes of your considerations, and also if your selections are self-sowing, just to make sure you are completely happy with your installations.

Happy Gardening.

Nicole Hackett is the Garden Girl at R&M Pool, Patio and Gardens, located at 6780 Marsh Creek Road in Clayton, 925-672-0207.

GRX September 27, 2015 at 2:44 PM

All I can think of when I see those is…. fire hazard.

Ornamental Tree ? September 27, 2015 at 2:50 PM

Hi Garden Girl,

I really enjoy your column every Sunday.

Do you have any suggestions for a front yard lawn ornamental tree that would be in full sun. I would like an evergreen type tree however I’m open to other tree suggestions. I’d also prefer a drought resistant tree, deep root system, easy maintenance and that will grow no more than 15-20 ft. tall.

Thank you for any suggestions…

PC September 27, 2015 at 6:25 PM

Just remember, some of these ornamental grasses can become notoriously invasive. I recall planting a fine-textured red-colored grass in several areas and the darn plants started moving into areas reserved for annual color, etc. Think how pampa grass has become such a pain for CalTrans! Think twice before planting.

anon September 27, 2015 at 6:44 PM

I’m not the garden girl but I have one tree in mind. A chinese pistashe but it’s not evergreen.

Silva September 27, 2015 at 6:45 PM

#2, I’m training a few Ray Hartman Ceanothus for just that very thing.

Green Thumber September 27, 2015 at 7:13 PM

Crape myrtle or arbutus

Ornamental Tree ? September 28, 2015 at 6:19 PM

Thanks to all the readers for the advice. I will look them all up.

Silva September 28, 2015 at 6:37 PM

Aww. I just found out Ceanothus have a short lifespan. Oh well, they’ll probably outlive me anyway!

Antler September 28, 2015 at 11:00 PM

Ornamental tree at #2 … Magnolia trees are evergreen, but they stay that way by dropping a few leaves all the time and replacing with new growth. It works best to keep the area underneath the tree free of other plants; just let the leaves and seed poms fall and make nice mulch.

Everyone at #last week’s column … You can see how nice the miniature-blossomed golden lantana looks if you notice the bushes in the planter boxes in front of the FoodMaxx on Clayton Road in Concord.

Silva September 29, 2015 at 9:30 AM

#2, Oh, Coast Live Oak! I have one that volunteered in my yard and I couldn’t be happier with it. I’ve done nothing to it after cutting the small lower limbs to the hight you can walk under. After that, no maintenance at all. Evergreen and native to these parts, and not a large size Oak tree.

Silva September 29, 2015 at 9:37 AM

Here’s a nice page about them;

Garden Girl September 29, 2015 at 11:34 AM

Hello Ornamental Tree ?

Sorry for the delay in my response. Busy, busy…

The readers did offer good suggestions for you to consider. Thanks!

Crape Myrtles would stay closest to your preferred max height. If you look at the Arbutus, consider the Marina selection. There are nice specimens planted around JM Hospital in Walnut Creek. Fruitless olive may be something to think about? The Coast Live Oak suggestion is very easy to grow, but while young it is awkward looking. Same with the Chinese Pistache, awkward in its adolescent, maturing to something beautiful. Western Red Buds are great trees, especially in their natural multi-trunk shape.

My advice to you is to use your ornamental tree to contrast the landscape. If you have lots of green plants, pick a red or gray foliage tree. Also consider the color of your home. If your house is light colored like tan, or white, a gray foliage tree will wash out into the back ground. Also, when is your landscape flowering the most. If its in the spring, consider a summer bloomer, in the summer, a spring bloomer.

Hope this helps. If you need, visit me at the nursery and bring a photo of the front of the home and the area where your needing the ornamental. I can be very helpful.

Thanks for reading.

Mimi (original) September 29, 2015 at 2:47 PM

Are any or all of these grasses safe around pets? Either non-toxicity-wise or non-injury-wise from blades that may slice at fur/skin??

Mary Fouts September 30, 2015 at 2:51 PM

@Mimi (original): The ASPCA has a very informative list of plants that are toxic and non-toxic to pets:

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