Light, motion in the garden |

Light, motion in the garden

On a warm afternoon recently, I sat in one of my new garden areas. A low, folding chair allowed a different perspective than walking along the path and through the gate.

As I sat quietly, the hum of the honeybees foraging in the rich, blue flowers of bluebeard (Caryopteris incana) immersed me in this special world.

Nearby, the blooms of ornamental grasses caught the afternoon light. The graceful leaves moved in a breeze so gentle I had not been aware of it until I saw them sway.

Ornamental grasses add two elements to the garden often difficult to achieve with other plants: Light and motion. Each grass has a unique form and texture, as with any plant. Their form may add the illusion of motion, or offer actual movement with the wind.

Some grasses add the element of light, capturing the sun from dawn until dusk. It may be the leaves, or the bloom (influorescence) or both that brighten the landscape as they glow.

Clumping grasses are good choices for a mixed border. They do not spread aggressively with stolons. However, they may spread seed, resulting in lots of self-sown volunteers. All the ornamental grasses are deer-resistant.

Feather reed grass

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) has grown much larger in my garden than I ever expected. It is a clumping grass, and has not even spread by seed. My mature plant is five feet high and four feet wide, with a graceful arching habit of the leaves. This ornamental grass moves with the slightest breeze, and may give the illusion of motion on a still day.

Plant the feather reed grass in partial shade in the foothills. A good exposure is strong morning light followed by some afternoon shade. If you can find a spot in your garden where it can capture a bit of the late afternoon light too, you will be rewarded with glowing influorescences.

Enrich the soil with organic compost and an organic source of phosphorus and oyster shell. Deep summer irrigation once every two weeks is sufficient when plants are mulched.

A related clumping grass, Calamagrostis brachytricha, is one of my favorites of the reed grasses, though often difficult to find in the nursery trade. Its very arching, bright-green leaves add beautiful form and texture to the landscape.

This delicate grass has exquisite coloring of purple and light-green to the influorescences as they open slowly in late summer into fall. Fall-blooming reed grass prefers shade in the foothills. Dappled sunlight under deciduous trees in the morning, with full afternoon shade, is the best exposure. Mature size and soil and water requirements are the same as for ‘Karl Foerster.’ This grass has not self-sown in my garden.

Little blue stem

Little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grows wild on the American prairie. There it must self-sow, though it has not done so for me. With upright, clumping habit in spring and early summer, this tidy grass is a beautiful addition to the flower border.

As the grass begins to flower, habit changes to arching. Mature height is about two feet, with a spread in bloom of two to three feet. Soil and water requirements are similar to the Calamagrostis species.

Little blue stem is a grass for full sun or very light shade, and moderate water in summer. Blue-green leaves transition to apricot and purple in the fall, and small, fluffy seed heads add textural interest that captures light. The exquisite fall coloring inspired my planting this grass adjacent to a garden gate that leads to the vegetable garden. Plants are commonly available in local nurseries.

One more ornamental grasses for shade or partial shade is spangle grass, or wild sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). This grass may also be grown in full sun, but it will require more water.

In my shade garden, it is growing in competition with tree roots, and grows beautifully with the irrigation once week in the heat of the summer.

Similar to a bamboo in appearance, spangle grass is a clumping grass, but may spread rather aggressively by seed. The narrow leaves on slender stems capture light all day, and movement with the slightest breeze brings that light to life.

Spangle grass has a very long blooming season, beginning in summer. By autumn, seed heads have delicate coloration of buff and pale rust, inviting close-up inspection. And that’s just what we should be doing on a warm fall day: Pausing to appreciate the beauty of nature.


Carolyn Singer has gardened in Nevada County for 29 years. She opens her garden to propagation students each summer. Check the current schedule at

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