8 Grasses for Texture and Complexity

Grasses can accent almost any garden. But why are they just accents? If you have a lot of height in a garden, these varieties can make a great background foil that won’t clutter the rest of the vignette with obnoxious, excess foliage. At least one of these plants should be on everyone’s shopping list.

1. Sporobolus heterolepis

Sporobolus heterolepis, or prairie dropseed, grows on a small scale, with fine, airy foliage rising to two feet tall and flowers coming in around three feet. Prairie dropseed is best planted en masse, as its airy, hazy texture deserves to be amplified rather than lost amid other plants. One thing to note about prairie dropseed—it does have a certain smell on hot summer days. Some liken it the odor to buttered popcorn; to others, strong cilantro.

2. Molinia ‘Cordoba’

This is no accent grass. Standing almost six feet tall and waving its wonderfully geometric panicles in the air, ‘Cordoba’ is a standout that demands attention late in the season. I particularly like the short foliage, rising only two feet from the ground, which lends a distinct separation of foliage and flower.

3. Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’

It deserves its namesake, to say the least. Of all of the little bluestems I have ever seen, and believe me there are plenty, this one beats them all. Little bluestems have a penchant for flopping, even in full sun and otherwise ideal conditions. I have yet to see one single stem of ‘Standing Ovation’ lean towards the ground, not even in part shade, and the color even seems to be a tint bluer in the shade than in full sun. Don’t even get me started on the fall color—wonderful, flaming red with delightful little fuzzy seed heads. Delicious.

4. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’

This cool season grass blooms earlier than others mentioned, usually in early summer. It offers up elegant, airy panicles atop clean green foliage. However, the real show starts as they dry, aging to a fetching sun-kissed, straw blonde color. It holds onto these tresses long into the fall.

5. Eragrostis spectabilis

This Iowa native usually isn’t much to see with low-key, unexciting foliage. But come high summer, dense, airy panicles turn an alluring shade of purply-pink and light up any garden space. The best part—they only get about a foot and a half tall and thrive in hellstrips and tough circumstances.

6. Carex buchananii

On the annual side of things, we recommend Carex buchananii, or leatherleaf sedge. This is a great, underused annual grass that lends excellent texture and color to beds and containers. As the common name implies, this grass sports rough hewn bronze color with accents of silver on the tops of the blades, which terminate into whimsical curls. Truly a unique plant.

7. Melinis nerviglumis ‘Savannah’

Another annual grass we’re fond of is Melinis nerviglumis ‘Savannah’ (Savannah ruby grass), which forms tight mounds of aquamarine foliage that grows to a foot and a half in height. But it’s foliage is only half the reason to grow it. In mid-summer, tall spikes bear fluffy three-inch tufts of ruby colored flowers that age with a silvery cast. On top of that, the foliage ages to spectacular shades of purple and red later in the fall, a head-turning effect to look forward to later in the season.

8. Nassella tenuissima

Nassella tenuissima (pony tails) is a light and airy grass that mixes well with just about anything. The foliage is a light green color and come late summer, fills out with delightful plumes reminiscent of its namesake. Growing up to two feet tall, depending on conditions, this hardworking grass complements without stealing the show.