Benefits of small ornamental grasses

Variegated Moor grass is a small ornamental grass (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
Variegated Moor grass suits small spaces. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

Favourite among my ornamental grasses is variegated Moor grass (Molinia caerulea ssp. caerulea ‘Variegata’, Zone 5, or possibly Zone 4 with protection), a small clump-forming grass that grows to 18 x 18 inches (45 x 45 cm). Its green blades are embellished with a central creamy streak that prevents it from being mistaken for a weed grass. It’s a subtle plant, but when planted en mass as a groundcover for a small area (perhaps grouping three to seven plants together), or used to edge a border or line a pathway, there’s quite a stylish impact. The golden flower wands are just rising now, and their airy delicacy adds an elegant touch to small spaces.

In my garden, two clumps frame the top level of granite slab steps. There’s some nice creative tension going on between the delicate Moor grass and the rough-hewn edges of the granite. This is certainly a happy accident, as I’m no authority on ornamental grass species, but it seemed right to associate an elegant little grass with a big piece of rock.

It took the better part of a decade for me to admit any ornamental grass into the garden (I’m known for pointless resistance), but finally the dam broke when a friend gave me the two clumps of variegated Moor grass. The little clumps have a consistently fresh appearance, never seed around, and require no maintenance beyond cutting them down in late autumn. I plan to divide my two clumps and begin putting them along a short section of front walkway.

Other grasses in the garden, such as ‘Morning Light’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, Zone 6), porcupine grass (M. s. ‘Strictus’, Zone 6) and Foerster’s feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Zone 4), are all taller and wider than the little Moor grass. These big grass clumps need a wide berth in perennial beds, but the little Moor grass is happy to fill chinks and corners almost anywhere.

So, I’m on the hunt for more small ornamental grasses. Who could resist ‘Little Bunny’ dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’, Zone 6, 12 x 12 inches / 30 x 30 cm), a cultivar sounding like it came from a Disney production? It almost resembles Little Miss Muffett’s tuffet, but then distinguishes itself by sending up a profusion of creamy plumes in late summer. Again, another accent grass for adding detail and texture to a small space.

With deeper cold hardiness, several of the fescues are colourful and diminutive. Sea Urchin fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Seeigel’, Zone 4, 8 x 12 inches / 20 x 30 cm) forms compact blue-grey mounds that would be attractive sharing a part-sun location with a clump of ‘Blue Wedgwood’ hosta that’s currently lonely by itself in my front border. And while I’m looking at small fescues, I might as well give in and get a couple of  bright blue clumps like ‘Elijah Blue’ (F. g. ‘Elijah Blue’, Zone 4, 8 x 12 inches / 20 x 30 cm), because they would really attract attention when partnered with the yellow foliage of ‘August Moon’ hosta. ‘Skinner’s Blue’ fescue (F. g. ‘Skinner’s Blue’, Zone 3, 10 x 18 inches / 25 x 45 cm) with turquoise-green blades would be an especially hardy selection.

I’m enthused about the possibilities for spicing up some dull foundation plantings with small-scale grasses. As is so often the case in gardening, the glory is in the small details.

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