Singer: Which catches your attention? |

Singer: Which catches your attention?

Muhlenbergia capillaris 'Regal Mist' grows natively in the easter US.
Submitted by Carolyn Singer |

For shade and partial shade:

— Acorus gramineus (sweet flag)

— Calamagrostis species (reed grass)

— Carex, variegated and gold cutivars (sedge)*

— Chasmanthium latifolium (spangle grass, wild sea oats)

— Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (Japanese forest grass)

— Phalaris arundicaea (ribbon grass, gardener’s garters)

For sun or very light shade:

— Bouteloua gracilis (Mosquito grass, blue grama grass)*

— Festuca, all species (fescue)*

— Helichtotrichon sempervirens (blue oat grass)

— Miscanthus species (maiden grass)

— Muhlenbergia species*

— Nasella species*

— Pennisetum species (fountain grass, except ‘Rubrum’, which is not winter hardy))

— Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem)

— Stipa species*

*California native; or includes species that are California native

Some clump, some run, some cascade, and others grow upright. Some thrive on the dry side, others need moisture. There are grasses that move with the slightest breeze and others that catch the sunlight on a day without wind.

There are those that reseed prolifically, and others that never volunteer even with an abundance of seed on the plant. Some grasses are considered invasive (Japanese bloodgrass) in wetter regions, but decline in our dry climate.

Some are quite small and others more than six feet in height and spread.

Know your ornamental grass! How it appears in a one-gallon container tells you little about its mature habit. How much sun? How much shade? Are the recommendations for the hot Sierra foothills, or for cooler coastal climates where fog rolls in, reducing light and heat?

When I discover a new grass, I usually grow it in a container, easy to move into stronger light or more shade during the heat of the summer. By the second season, the grass may go into my meadow garden. Or it may find a permanent home in a large decorative pot.

Native grasslands once dominated much of northern America. In California, it is estimated that only 1 percent of the original native bunch grasses now exists, a dismal figure. Fortunately, seed has become more available, and wild grassland restoration is a serious effort in many states.

In the mid-’60s I lived briefly in Montana. While the majestic mountains in Glacier Park drew my attention, even in that rugged environment, grasses provided food and habitat for wildlife. In the open rural areas east of the mountains, vast plains were covered by native grasses untouched by heavy grazing.

As native grasses were “discovered,” many became valued for their ornamental use in residential and commercial plantings. One of my favorite public places is the hardscaped area south of the Mission Bay UCSF Medical Center. Grasses soften plantings areas in the walkways, accented against the walls of the medical center. In the midst of this “field,” picnic tables provide an invitation to linger.

Grasses native to dryland areas of California have deep root systems. Sedges along creeks and in sloughs tolerate the wet conditions an ideal winter delivers, and the drier conditions in summer. Most native grasses survive even through periods of drought. When lower leaves die back, the plant material adds to the mulch around the plant and the humus in the soil.

Knowing the natural habitat and habit of the ornamental grass that catches your attention is important information for you to provide the ideal conditions in your garden.

Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She will be teaching a class about deer-resistant ornamental grasses, shrubs, and trees from 9:30-11:30 a.m. today at Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in Grass Valley. Information is available at She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally.

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