HARDINESS: Frost tolerant
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Near neutral
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Average, well-drained
PREFERRED LIGHT: Sun
ATTRIBUTES: Grassy texture, seed heads; use in beds, as specimens, pots, for fresh or dried arrangements
SEASON OF INTEREST: Late spring through fall
FAVORITES: Hare's tail grass, quaking grass, 'Black Tip' wheat
QUIRKS: Seedlings may be mistaken for crabgrass
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Sunny spots with fertile, well-drained soil
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Not winter hardy, grow as annuals
CRITTER RESISTANCE: Good except for deer
DIMENSIONS: 18 in-6 ft (45.7 cm-1.8 m) tall, up to 12 in (30.5 cm) wide
Annual Grasses in the Landscape
With graceful, bladelike leaves crowned by flower heads whose silhouettes range from fluffy plumes to dangling jewels, annual ornamental grasses offer an easy way to add unique seasonal texture to the garden. These talented performers sing and dance when stems and leaves rustle in the slightest breeze, creating graceful movement and soothing sounds.
You can plant annual ornamental grasses in hedgelike rows to divide areas of your landscape, mass them in informal drifts alongside perennial flowers to fill gaps in beds, line them up along paths, or use them as accents to add height to container plantings. They are also ideal as a seasonal screen, to provide a "rest" for the eye in a busy landscape of flowers, and they can even work as an attractive "tenant" in spots where your landscape plans are still unsettled.
If your primary reason for growing these plants is to use the flower heads in fresh or dried arrangements, any sunny spot in a cutting garden or vegetable plot will do. In addition, you might consider using tall, upright ornamental grasses that are really decorative strains of wheat or corn as surprising textural accents in a summer flower garden.
Selecting Annual Grasses
If you want to grow annual ornamental grasses with the demeanor of flowers, the first candidates to consider are quaking grass (Briza maxima) and hare's tail grass (Lagurus oratus). Both have a penchant for cool weather. Planted in spring, they quickly grow from green slivers into tight bunches of leaves topped with showy flower heads. Left in the garden into summer, they will turn a tawny brown color that becomes more beautiful when set in motion by the wind.
Quaking grass produces thin stalks up to 2 ft (0.6 m) tall. Its flattened seed-containing cones dangle at the ends of the stems, resembling little rattles that flutter and shimmer in every breeze. To dry cut stems, simply place them in an empty vase, where they'll last indefinitely.
With a mature height of only 18 in (45.7 cm), hare's tail grass is compact enough to use as an edging in difficult spots, such as along a concrete driveway. This grass earns its name from the fluffy 2 in (5.1 cm) long seed heads that have the cottony texture of rabbits' tails. When cut and dried just as they lighten to buff brown, the stems will last for years.
If you live in a cold climate where many perennial ornamental grasses are not winter hardy, you can try raising the few perennial species that grow fast enough from a spring sowing to be treated as annuals. At 4 ft (1.2 m) tall, fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) has arching leaves and produces long beige plumes lightly blushed with lavender. It's a classic companion for butterfly bush, whose purple flowers emerge in summer and last into fall.
Slightly shorter, with deep red blades and rose-tinted plumes, purple fountain grass (P. setaceum 'Rubrum') makes a perfect upright specimen for a large container. Pair it with mounding and trailing plants, such as trailing petunias and ornamental sweet potato vine. Feathertop (P. villosum)has a more elegant look than the other fountain grasses. Its creamy white, feathery plumes dance atop 2 ft (0.6 m) tall plants. Unfortunately, the flower heads shatter when dry and cannot be used in arrangements.
All of the fountain grasses are perennials, but because they are winter hardy only to Zone 8, they are best handled as annuals. If you like, you can try growing them in containers and overwintering them by trimming the foliage in fall and storing the pots in a cool basement or garage.
Ornamental varieties of wheat make outstanding plants for an informal garden. They have a mature height of 3 ft (1 m) or more, and produce long-stemmed seed heads with unusually long awns, or "whiskers." 'Black Tip' (Triticum durum) is a widely available wheat with dark black awns, while the light-colored 'Silver Tip' (Triticale durum) is a wheat-rye hybrid.
In Zones 7 to 9, both can be grown through winter from fall-sown seeds. There also are special varieties of corn (Zea mays) grown for their colorful foliage. Varieties of so-called striped corn include 'Japonica' and 'Harlequin', both with cream, pink, and green striping on the leaves. Although the plants, which grow to 6 ft (2 m) tall, do produce ears, the fruits are not edible. This corn is stricdy ornamental, so enjoy the colorful striped foliage in the summer garden, and then bundle stalks into shocks for fall decorating.
Growing Annual Grasses
There are two good reasons to start seeds of true ornamental grasses indoors about a month before your last spring frost. The seeds germinate best at 70°F (21 °C) but grow best under cooler conditions, with temperatures between 50° and 60°F (10° and 16°C). So they are well pleased with an early start indoors followed by prompt transplanting to cooler outdoor temperatures. Plant seeds 1/8 in (0.5 mm) deep in individual containers or flats, and transplant outdoors when the seedlings are 2 in (5.1 cm) tall with several leaf blades.
Ornamental wheat varieties are quite cold tolerant and can be sown in fall in Zones 7 to 9. In colder climates, plant seeds in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. In any season, plant seeds about 3 in (7.6 cm) apart. Deer adore winter wheat, cover young plants securely with bird netting, tuck bars of strongly scented soap around plantings to deter them, or purchase a deer repellent. Luckily, few other pests bother either true ornamental grasses or ornamental wheat. Striped corn is a warm-weather crop. Wait until the last frost has passed to plant seeds 10 in (25.4 cm) apart outdoors.
All the grasses mentioned prefer full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. Prior to planting, work a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 formula into the soil at the rate recommended on the package label.