Inspiration for designing with grasses

Grasses are loved for their natural beauty, versatility and elegance and rightly earn their place as indispensable plants in a garden. They can play a key part in a variety of design situations, and provide a stylish and dependable presence in the garden throughout the year which makes them especially valuable. We look at some great ways that grasses have been used in garden designs.

Blocks of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldschleier’ are used in a minimalist and contemporary design. The gold flower heads contrast with the dark background and harmonise with the rich copper and buttery tones of the surrounding planting.

Photo credit

A path winds itself through blocks of tall grasses and drifts of perennials in this garden designed by Dan Pearson.

Grasses are expertly interwoven amongst perennials in this contemporary courtyard garden by Tom Stuart Smith.

A more restful and relaxed planting scheme of grasses and herbaceous perennials by Tom Stuart Smith (above) and an informal herbaceous border by Dan Pearson (below) with grasses and perennials beautifully combined.

Photo source

Stipa tenuissima add a light and airy feel to this country garden border (above), whilst Stipa gigantea are used as a focal point in this dry gravel garden (below).

Grasses form an integral part of this traditional herbaceous border at RHS Wisley, and provide rhythm and repetition to the planting.

Grasses combined together can result in some effective planting combinations where the interest is provided by the contrasting textures.

Photo source

Sprays of shimmering flowerheads punctuate the planting of this garden by Piet Oudolf in the prairie style.

Photo source

The ethereal qualities of grasses can give a planting scheme drama and beauty, and provide a perfect foil for contrasting plant forms such as the spires and round flower heads below.

Photo source
Photo source

The textural qualities of grasses add movement and life to a border. In this garden of Christopher Bradley Hole, grasses billow out on to the gravel path (above), and the flower heads provide a golden haze above the lower growing foliage (below).

Photo source

Some of the most desirable and useful grasses are:

Anemanthele lessoniana

The pheasants tail grass has a pleasing arching habit. It has purple tinged flower spikes in summer and the evergreen leaves turn a rust brown in winter.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

A taller grass with an upright habit, Calamagrostis lends an architectural presence to the garden and can be used to add a strong vertical line to planting. Its useful in a variety of design situations and great for providing winter interest.

Deschampsia cespitosa

The tufted hair grass is a clump forming grass with a cloud of flowers. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldschleier’ and the shorter ‘Goldtau’ put on a display of shimmering gold flowers.

Hakonechloa macra

A beautiful slow growing evergreen grass with a clump forming habit. It is useful in a variety of design situations. H. macra ‘Aureola’ has arching lime green thinly striped leaves.

Luzula sylvatica

The great woodrush is lower growing with strap like evergreen leaves. It can be useful as ground cover or as front of border planting.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’

This is a very useful grass that can provide a structural element to a scheme. It has a mass of narrow curved green leaves with white midribs and a graceful presence in winter.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’

M. sinensis ‘Malepartus’ has a cascade of green foliage and feathery coppery brown flowerheads from late summer. It’s considered one of the easiest of the miscanthus to establish.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’

Similar in appearance to M. sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ but with a more upright habit. Its eye catching variegation make it an interesting focal point plant for the border or container.

Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’

A taller grass with an open growth habit, ‘Transparent’ has a haze of flower heads that move with the wind.

Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’

Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’ has beautiful autumn colour when its leaves turn red. This grass is good in any garden soil in full sun.

Stipa gigantea

A large grass that grows into broad evergreen clumps with long stems and oat like flowers. Flowers from early summer to late summer.

Stipa tenuissima

This neat and compact grass has soft feathery stems with pale green flowerheads and the fine leaves gently wave in the slightest breeze. A great grass for providing interest through movement.

Inspiration and photo credits:

Tom Stuart Smith

Dan Pearson

Piet Oudolf

Christopher Bradley Hole

All other photography: copyright Garden Design Eye


Garden visit: Anglesey Abbey

The Winter Walk at Anglesey Abbey was conceived in 1996 to mark the centenary of the birth of the first Lord Fairhaven. The walk is best visited from late autumn through to early spring when the plants – chosen for their winter appeal – are at their best. The visitor can get inspiration for seasonal colour, scent and planting combinations from the array of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and bulbs that are planted throughout the walk.

A golden willow Salix alba var. vitellina stands amid a group of Sarcococca shrubs and the stems of the coral bark willow illuminate the background.

The orange and red stems of the coral bark willow Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’ rise above a mass of Sarcococca shrubs, including S. ruscifolia var chinensis and S. hookeriana var digyna.

The winter walk winds its way between hedges and trees on either side, and passes thickets of white stemmed ornamental brambles, including Rubus cockburnianus (above) and the fiery stems of red dogwoods Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (below).

The acid yellow Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’ illuminates the side of the pathway ahead of a blaze of fiery dogwood stems. The black leaved Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ are in stark contrast to the Luzula foliage.

Here, the contrasting pinks, yellows and greens and complementary forms of this plant grouping make it a pleasing composition.

A broad sweep of Mahonia lend their presence and bold foliage to the planting. Featured species include Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’, M. x media ‘Winter Sun’ and the lower growing M. aquifolium ‘Apollo’.

The twisted branches and catkins of the corkscrew hazel Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ introduce form and texture (above), whilst contrast is provided by the black grass Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ and the acid yellow of the Carex (below).

A billowing mass of cloud pruned Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ envelope the branches and pink flowers of the Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ (above) and the yellow flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ and cinnamon coloured, peeling bark of the paperbark maple Acer griseum (below).

An interesting combination of Hamamelis, Luzula and Euonymus.

The classic seasonal colour combination of greens and reds displayed by the Mahonia.

At the end of the walk the visitor is greeted by a grove of dazzling white barked Himalayan birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii which provide a fitting finale to the Winter Walk.

For further information and visiting details visit

Photography: Garden Design Eye