All About Ornamental Grasses - California Wild Style
Meadow gardens are all the rage. And with good reason! They can be cottage or contemporary. They can be showpieces or soft edges. They can foster wildlife & save water. PLUS There's a million ways to mix up a big beautiful palette of Ornamental grasses.
But in California there's a few extra items to check off to ensure grass gardens will give you the gorgeous you desire.
- Make sure you pick grasses that are not invasive so they don't start popping up in places you don't want them or threatening wildlife.
- Pick grasses that are drought-tolerant so they're not sucking water more water than is needed
Fun fact: hey did you know bamboo is a grass??
Here's a hot combo of white muhly grass and green New Zealand flax. California sycamore soaring overhead.
Non-Invasive & Low-Water Ornamental Grasses for California:
- Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia grasses): Pink muhly, white cloud muhly, Lindheimer (gold) muhly, pine muhly, all are great American natives with modest water needs, part-shade tolerance and big fall color [aka inflorescence displays]
- Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens): A big beautiful grass that is very low water and can tolerate deep shade (even oak shade!)
- Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua gracilis): Also called blue grama, this cute little grass has golden oat-like seed heads in the fall
- Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia): Some people think the seed tassels on this smaller grass look like fairy wands.
- Heavy Metal Switchgrass (Panicum): A big colorful American prairie grass with modest water needs and dramatic fall color. Makes a dramatic backdrop to smaller varietals of Muhlenbergia like capillaris.
Avoid These Invasives:
- Fountain Grass (Pennisetum): These plants are threatening some wild ecologies & worsening fire risk in California wildlands. They can look great & be easy in the garden but perhaps a little too easy. Try Switchgrass instead.
- Pampas Grass (Cortaderia) Good news! There's a dwarf non-invasive [sterile] variety of Pampas grass now that doesn't threaten our local environments or grow those giant needle-sharp rat hotel clumps. BUY THIS ONE: Cortaderia Pumila
Annoying or a 'lil Invasive:
- Mexican Feather grass (Nasella / Stipa tenuissima): Known for the beautiful golden hairs. A low-growing whisper. This grass is a bit invasive in Southern California, but it's so small and closely related to our native needle grasses this author doesn't find it concerning.
- California Needle Grass (Nasella/Stipa): Purple & California Needle grasses are one of our most common remaining wild grasses in California. However, they are also one of the most ANNOYING to walk through or have your pets brush against because their seed heads are aggressive foxtails that can burrow into your clothing and your pet's skin.
- Rye Grass: blue rye is an awesome grass that is ACTUALLY NATIVE but we're calling it a little invasive because it can spread like crazy & be hard to get rid of. Shade friendly. Still, we like it a lot for tough spots, dry shade and it's silver color. Just want you to know that it can be aggressive in certain yards.
- Maiden Grass (Miscanthus): Japanese & Chinese grasses like bloodgrass and maidenhair grass can be incredible beautiful in small numbers or in shade (i.e. lily turf). However, they take a little more water then we prefer to use. So we don't include them in designs in large numbers. Not invasive in the slightest!
Small Ornamental Grasses that are Drought Tolerant-ish:
Here's some small grasses that can fill in the foregrounds of gardens in small numbers without tapping the water bill tooooo hard.
- Fescue (Festuca): Idaho blue, California Fescues, etc.: just cute little tufts of blue or green.
- Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua): pretty seed heads, native to the prairies and deserts of California. It's seed heads grow to about 12-24" tall in summer. Turns purple or blonde with frost.
- Dune Sedge (Carex pansa): California coastal grass, this little guy loves sandy soil. It looks it's best in winter and grows to about 10-18"
- Alkali Drop Seed (Sporobolus airoides): used to coat much of California's central valley. This lovely 1-3' grass makes up a beautiful fore or mid ground and is a warm season thriver. Birds love this one. Goes dormant in winter. Learn more.
Goes great with Ornamental Grass
Grass-like plants or plants with architecture that is reminiscent of grass can look great mixed in or as backdrops too ornamental grass. Remember to maintain good enough spacing (every 4' when mixed with large grasses) to flatter the plant's natural architecture.
- New Zealand Flax (Phormium): Comes in all manner of colors and sizes. We find blue, green and gold variegated varieties look best with grass unless you crave the high contrast of pink, red or purple flax.
- Flax Lily (Dianella): These have become popular in recent years in commercial California landscaping for their tidiness. They don't need with the annual trimming many ornamental grasses require.
- Blue-eyed grass (Schizachyrium bellum): This lil lily looks great in early spring in the foreground of a garden and will distribute itself as it pleases in Southern California. Low-water.
- Agave: Various forms of agave look great with big ornamental grasses. Mix them into swathes in small numbers (like in the new drought tolerant entry gardens at the Huntington Gardens). Like American or blue Agave, Tequila Agave, Weber's Agave, or Pineapple Agaves with small or medium sized grasses.
- Iris: Nice tall iris, pop-up beautifully between big grasses in the spring. Bearded Iris can be quite drought tolerant and tolerate rockier soils.
- Dracaena & Cordyline: Some grass-like forms in these species. More of a tropical look. Great for shade settings and lusher looks.
Dreaming of your own drought-friendly grassland? Try shopping our:
- Superbloom Selfie Plant Pack: Great for hot & dry regions where you want super spring and early summer blooms a quiet summer and a fall of exploding blooming grass color.
- Wild Grass Preplanned Garden: Bigger plants than super-bloom selfie and more tolerant of variable garden conditions. Gorgeous fall and winter grass inflorescences/blooms.