Native Ornamental Grasses and Companion Plants

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Written by David Salman, owner of High Country Gardens

Many years ago when I first became interested in ornamental grasses, I didn’t understand how to use them as a components of a landscape design. Now I use ornamental grasses all the time and have discovered how to combine them in the landscape with other plants. This seems to create a wonderful synergism that accentuates all the attributes of grass and non-grass.

Agastache 'Ava'Sorghastrum (Indian Grass), Panicum (Switch Grass), Bouteloua (Grama), Schizachyrium (Little Bluestem), Andropogon (Big Bluestem), Sporobolus (Sacaton or Dropseed) and Muhlenbergia (Muhly Grass) are genera that contain many of our most showy native ornamental grasses. I’m very gratified to see a building interest in these grasses as they are proving themselves to be some of our most showy, low care, water thrifty native plants.

 Some of my favorite species and cultivars of these grasses from this list above include:

‘Llano’ (pronounced ya’ – no) Indian Grass (Sorghastrum)

‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ Switch Grasses (Panicum)

Side oats and Blue Grama (Bouteloua)

‘Prairie Blues’ Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium)

Wright’s Giant Sacaton (Sporobolus)

‘Mega Blue’ Big Bluestem (Andropogon)

‘Pink Flamingo’ and Reverchon’s Muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii)

Agave havardiana

When combining cacti, succulents, flowering perennials and woody plants with these ornamental grasses, I like to try and contrast textures, forms and colors to bring out the best attributes of the plants being planted together.

Cacti and Succulents: some of the most interesting characteristics of cacti and succulents are their forms; they are wonderful living sculptures that provide an element of garden art.

 Late Season Flowering Perennials: combining late summer and fall blooming perennials and native grasses, provides an opportunity to combine and contrast colors and textures. The wonderful combinations are practically endless.

Beavertail Cactus

Native Shrubs: combining low growing, groundcover-like shrubs like ‘Gro Low’ Sumac (Rhus aromatica) with the large growing native grasses like Wright’s Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) contrasts form, texture and fall color.

I’ve added few photos that illustrate some of these design ideas;

 At the top of the article: ‘Ava’ Hummingbird Mint (Agastache) with Indian Grass (Sporobolus)

 Middle of the article: Havard’s Agave (Agave havardiana) with Silky Threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima)

Last photo in article: Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris v. aurea) with Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

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Fran Sorin
7 comments… add one

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Charlotte September 17, 2009, 6:16 am

These are lovely – just wish we could grow them back in the UK…. no chance!

Helen at Toronto Gardens September 17, 2009, 11:35 pm

Grasses have been a big gap in my gardening knowledge. However, at a great presentation on grasses at our garden club this evening, I had a few Aha! ideas. Looking forward to giving them a try.

That’s good news! Ornamental grasses continue to become more and more prevalent at some of the greatest gardens in the world. Experiment and have a blast with them! Fran

healingmagichands September 19, 2009, 4:02 pm

I’ve been acquiring grasses for quite some time. I developed a deep love of them when I lived in Alaska, the many and varied seed heads of the wild grasses there were so beautiful.

I finally live in a place where I have plenty of room, which is essential for the larger grasses to really show off. I started acquiring grass about four years ago, and I was not such a responsible gardener back then. So I have grasses in my collection, and I know if I go back through the packing sheets from my past orders, I will be able to identify them all. Meanwhile, I keep telling myself I have to update the map I made when I planted the thing, what with the alterations I have made over the summer as things die or I decide they are not really prairie grasses and practice eminent domain and relocate them elsewhere at my expense. I’ll get around to that just as soon as I finish harvesting the black beans, sweet potatoes, carrots, and when Jim and I finish the rock wall we are presently building for our strawberry beds.

Well, I have tags and receipts for most of my grasses, except for the ones I have adopted from my yard over the years. I have yet to find a good place to find the identity of a wild grass. There are hundreds of them!

I recently added to my gardens, and established two native plant gardens in the new section. One is my rain garden, and I designed it as the sort of prairie you would find in a swale. It is looking super fine right now. I featured it recently:

The other one has named itself the Petite Prairie, and I have come to describe it to myself as the smallest prairie in the known universe. I probably have competition for that title. That is the garden I photographed obsessively for the Piture This contest.

Anyway, this seems to be Ornamental Grass month at GGW, and I am loving it. This blog rocks.

Healing Magic Hands,

Thanks so much for the ‘stroll’ through your garden that you shared with us for Garden’s Blogger Bloom Day.
I love, love, love the layout of your veggie garden. The way you’ve acquired ornamental grasses over the past 4 years is just fine. You are experimenting, learning what grows where and, as I well know, even if you didn’t initially keep the name tags for them, you can look them up in some good ornamental grass books.

I know your petite prairie from your entry into Picture This this month. I wish though that I could see more close ups of your rain garden. If you have written a separate post on it, please link to here so that we can all get on your site and learn more about it.

And finally, is there anything you haven’t done in your life?? Now I understand perfectly why you have given yourself the name Healing Magic Hands. We love having you participate in our monthly photo contest! Fran

2 Green Acres October 1, 2009, 12:52 pm

Great post. I have a few of these grasses already and am thinking about devoting a portion of my yard to a meadow. I look forward to researching these grasses.

Glad to read you enjoyed the discussion of native ornamental grasses. These varieties are very representative of the growing number of great native species and cultivars coming into cultivation. Enjoy! David S.

Pam Kersting October 9, 2009, 7:17 pm

Interesting. I knew David from when I lived in Santa Fe many years ago. Glad to see he’s specifying beautiful ornamental grasses in the high desert!

Dear Pam-
Thanks for the comment. My fondness for ornamental grasses, particularly natives, continues to grow. They do so well in our waterthrifty Western landscapes despite our erratic weather and growing conditions.
David S. at High Country Gardens

Lane Goodkind April 9, 2015, 3:16 pm

Nassella tenuissima is a known invasive pest throughout the west and is not longer being grown by many nurseries in California – including San marcos growers.

Saxon Holt April 13, 2015, 3:57 pm

Many grasses are invasive – in certain climates. N. tenuissima is not invasive where I live in Northern California. I love it, and recommend it. It spreads in the garden but not outside it.

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