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Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Designby Nancy Ondra
Chapter 3 - Color Palettes
Ornamental grasses come in an astounding array of hues and shades, from bright red and gold to copper, bronze, steel blue, and silver. The colors of some change to punctuate the seasons, creating variety that gardeners anticipate with delight; others offer consistent foliage color. A single colorful grass, such as the rich reddish purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'), can add welcome drama to a simple container planting from spring to frost; in masses, it makes a striking long-season landscape accent.
Grasses that change color throughout the year present a challenge, albeit an enjoyable one. With some grasses, spring color is most vivid, as with the sunny yellow foliage of golden wood millet (Milium effusum 'Aureum') or the bright white stripes of variegated bulbous oat grass (Arrhenatherum elatius ssp. bulbosum 'Variegatum'). These early birds are carefree companions for other spring beauties, including tulips, forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica), and bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.). Other ornamental grasses are at their most vivid in late summer and fall. The plain green early foliage bides its time while spring and early summer flowers take the stage, then gradually steps to the fore in a colorful show as summer progresses. Fall invites still more varied hues, with the changing shades of warm-season grasses fading to subdued rusts, bronzes, and golds after frost.
Ornamental grasses offer a vibrant color palette for the garden. May the images that follow inspire you to explore color in new, perhaps unexpected ways.
Glowing Golds and Bronzes
If you enjoy growing and using plants with colorful foliage, you'll find many golden and bronze grasses to add to your plant palette. Many of these grasses are striking enough to stand alone, but showcasing them with carefully chosen annual and perennial companions accentuates their true beauty.
Gold- and yellow-leaved grasses are particularly well suited for making exciting color combinations. Create a simple but handsome contrast by pairing a bright yellow or gold grass with a dark-green-leaved companion; for example, to add drama to a shady site, try golden wood millet (Milium effusum 'Aureum') against the daphnelike foliage of Robb's wood spurge (Euphorbia robbiae). For a cool-color combination and fabulous textural contrast, pair a golden grass with the bold foliage of a blue-leaved or blue-and-gold variegated hosta, such as 'Halcyon' or 'Aurora Borealis'. If you want a more daring display, combine golden grasses with plants having moody purple, maroon, or black foliage. Picture, if you will, golden greater wood rush (Luzula sylvatica 'Aurea') spiking up through the lacy, near-black leaves of 'Ravenswing' anthriscus (Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing'), or the glowing foliage of Bowles' golden sedge (Carex elata 'Aurea') spilling over the broad foliage of 'Chocolate Ruffles' heuchera (Heuchera hybrid 'Chocolate Ruffles'). With just two foliage plants, you can create a memorable, can't-miss accent that lasts from spring to frost.
That's not to say that golden grasses don't look great with flowers, because they definitely do. In fact, apart from pale and brassy yellows, it's difficult to think of a flower color that these grasses wouldn't pair well with. Golden grass foliage makes an especially elegant accent for chartreuse blooms, such as those of lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), euphorbia (Euphorbia spp.), and green-flowering tobacco (Nicotiana langsdorfii). Another combination that I find especially appealing is blue (or purple) and gold, so I generally like to plant gold-leaved grasses with bellflower (Campanula spp.), balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica), and Siberian iris (Iris sibirica). If your tastes differ, by all means try these grasses with the flower colors you prefer; you'll be glad you did.
Gold- and yellow-leaved grasses generally do fine in full sun in cooler climates. In hot-summer areas, though, strong afternoon sun can cause the foliage to bleach out or turn brassy or brown; in these areas, a site with light shade all day or with morning sun and afternoon shade is desirable. Striving to keep the soil evenly moist can also help to prevent golden grasses from scorching.
The individual species of bronze-leaved sedges vary somewhat in their needs, but generally they prefer soil that is evenly moist and has excellent drainage - a combination that can be somewhat challenging to provide. It's worth experimenting with the half dozen or so bronze-leaved forms and species available to see which perform best under your particular conditions.
Cool Blues and Quiet Grays
No matter what your color preferences, blue grasses, in all their many shades and gradations, from bright blue to nearly gray, can serve several purposes in a garden scheme. Some blues blend beautifully with soft colors, while others make outstanding accents for more intensely colored plants.
Powder-blue grasses are especially lovely in early summer combinations with pastel flowers and foliage: consider using 'Elijah Blue' fescue (Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue') with soft yellow foxgloves (Digitalis lutea) and rosy cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus). Carry that theme through the summer with blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), buttery 'Moonbeam' coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam'), and pink 'Shortwood' phlox (Phlox 'Shortwood'), then finish up in fall with 'Cloud Nine' switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine'), light yellow 'Lemon Queen' sunflower (Helianthus 'Lemon Queen'), and pink 'September Charm' anemone (Anemone hupehensis 'September Charm').
For a particularly elegant effect, try pairing blue-leaved grasses with blue flowers. Let wispy love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) weave up through spiky blue oat grass, or use Magellan wheatgrass (Elymus magellanicus) as an exquisite accompaniment for the steel-blue blooms of sea holly (Eryngium spp.) and globe thistle (Echinops spp.). White flowers - including 'Gourmet Popcorn' miniature rose, white rose campion (Lychnis coronaria 'Alba'), and white tulips, to name just a few - are also charming companions for the blue grasses.
Do you long for "edgier" plant combinations? Consider taking a trip across the color wheel and contrast blue grasses with brightly colored blooms in the red-orange-yellow range. Blue-leaved switch grasses, such as 'Heavy Metal' and 'Dallas Blues', for instance, provide an icy-cool backdrop for the plum-colored new foliage, red buds, and cherry red blooms of the floribunda rose aptly named 'Knock Out'. If you're truly adventurous with color, you might experiment by pairing a blue-gray grass with clear orange classic zinnia (Zinnia angustifolia). Or take a page out of Mother Nature's gardening notebook, and pair the orange-yellow blooms of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) with the blue-green leaves of 'Sioux Blue' Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans 'Sioux Blue').
Plants with intensely colored foliage also make fabulous accompaniments for blue-leaved grasses. For contrasting colors but similar texture, try black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') in front of a medium-height blue grass, such as 'The Blues' little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium 'The Blues'). Or contrast both color and texture by pairing a cool, blue-leaved grass with the broad foliage of a dark-leaved heuchera (perhaps 'Purple Petticoats') or a warm, golden hosta, such as 'Sun Power'.
The grasses in this color group vary widely in their growing needs, so it's worthwhile to do some research and thoroughly investigate all those you can find before deciding which will work best for you. Some are quite drought tolerant; others prefer more moisture. Some produce their most intense color in spring and early summer; others are at their peak in late summer and fall. Blue and gray grasses as a group seem to thrive in full sun. Many can tolerate light shade, but, like many other ornamental grasses, the less sun they get, the less intense their color.
Of all the colors of grass foliage, the darker hues are among the most remarkable. Ranging from ruby red to nearly pure black, these amazing grasses are invaluable tools for creating unforgettable combinations in every part of your garden, whether they complement other plants or are themselves the stars of the show.
Dark-leaved grasses are outstanding in mid- to late-summer beds and borders, when hot-colored annuals and perennials are really putting on a show. Pure orange, scorching scarlet, glowing crimson, and school-bus yellow - the red-, maroon-, and black-leaved grasses work well with them all. Unlike green grasses, which can intensify the contrast between brightly colored flowers, dark-leaved selections offer a tranquil backdrop, a place for your eye to rest before exploring the next brilliant bloom. Scattered throughout a hot-colored border, dark-leaved grasses can unify the whole planting, no matter how eclectic your other color choices.
Dark-leaved grasses are also elegant in more subdued partnerships. Maroon-leaved fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.) look lovely with a wide range of pink flowers, as well as peach, coral, rust, and other sunset shades. They also echo the dark centers of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) quite beautifully.
As far as foliage partners go, red-, maroon-, and black-leaved grasses pair well with many different colors. They're especially spectacular against silvery foliage, such as lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) and artemisia (Artemisia spp.). Plants with chartreuse foliage - including golden feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium 'Aureum') and golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'), to name a few - also make perfect companions for dark-leaved grasses.
It's difficult to generalize about the growing needs of the grasses in this color range, particularly because many of them aren't even true grasses - they just have grasslike leaves. One trait that most share is their preference for plenty of sun. Too much shade tends to fade red and purple hues, bringing out more green and muddying the overall effect. Equally important, grown in a dark spot, these grasses cannot truly be appreciated.
When you're placing dark-leaved grasses in your garden, try to situate them against a lighter background, or pair them with bright blooms or contrasting foliage; otherwise, they may get lost among other dark colors and be overlooked. It's generally best to use these dark-leaved beauties somewhat sparingly - a few dark grasses are dramatic; too many can create a "black hole" in your border.
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