The Best Ornamental Grass in the Universe

Fall is the season of grasses. In my garden, my absolute favorite grass is ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). 

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Now is when ‘Northwind’ sends up it’s airy panicles of tiny flowers. 

'Northwind' Switchgrass in the Sidewalk Border.
‘Northwind’ Switchgrass in the Sidewalk Border.

I have two big clumps of this Switchgrass in the Driveway Border. This grass is native to the eastern and central parts of the USA and Canada.

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‘Northwind’ has many virtues. It is big enough to make a statement, but not so big as to overwhelm everything around it. In my garden it grows about six feet tall. It does not self-sow or run, but it does make a substantial and gradually expanding clump. 

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It is a very upright grass. I am never even tempted to stake it, and that is saying something. 

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Like many grasses, at the right moments it can catch the light beautifully. 

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Switchgrass is a warm season grass, emerging late in the spring. It likes full sun best, and I have had some trouble with shading out by other plants that grow tall early and fast.

2014-09-01 17.16.03 switchgrass

The color is a deep green very lightly tinged with blue. In the fall it turns the color of straw, not flashy but appealing even so. 

Like many other grasses, Switchgrass adds a wonderful element of movement to the garden. Judy spent 90 minutes trying to use the video function of her camera to record the grasses waving in the wind.

Here’s another one where the wind isn’t blowing quite so hard. Can you hear the Cicadas? I find watching the grasses sway to be much like watching bees, very calming. OK, just one more.

Sorry, I can’t help myself. This is more of a close up.

What’s your favorite ornamental grass?

46 Comments on “The Best Ornamental Grass in the Universe

  1. It’s fun to see the videos–it gives us a great impression of what to expect with Switchgrass. The UW-Arboretum has so many beautiful grasses and sedges. I don’t have many here because of the shade. In the past, I was kind of blah about grasses, but I’m appreciating them more and more as I get older. I’m not sure why. Anyway, thanks for the info and the videos. 🙂

  2. I love grasses at this time of the year. One of my favourites is Panicum virgatum ‘ Heavy Metal’. It looks wonderful with late flowering daisies , and as you say never needs staking.
    Lovely photos and I like Judy’ s videos.

  3. Very nice. I love the sounds tall grasses make in the autumn wind. My favourite is the dwarf Miscanthus I have. The “flowers” are tinged with gold when the sun catches them, and it remains standing all winter unlike other grasses that flop or get squashed by snow and have to be cut back.

  4. I, too, like watching grasses move in the breeze. It’s how you can “see” the wind… For sure, your switchgrass is lovely. I have the Shenandoah switchgrass, a charming relative. I’m also fond of burgundy bunny grass. I planted pink muhley grass last fall, but lost it in the harsh winter… maybe I’ll try it again. All that swaying pink would be so pretty, huh?

  5. There are lots of folks who agree with your opinion of ‘Northwind’, it has been honored as the 2014 Perennial of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.

  6. As of this moment, my favorite is Switchgrass! It makes its own Sight and Sound Theater! And I do hear the cicadas. It’s been a familiar sound for several weeks here in NE Indiana…

    • I’ll set my Switchgrass against your Muhly any day! By the way, John, not sure if this is deliberate, but there is no longer a link to your blog from your name.

      • Wish I were more tech savvy to know what to do about the link, but I’ll work on it. Thanks for the heads up.

  7. You just can’t beat the sound of grasses swishing in the wind can you, I love all yours. I have lots of grasses, the problem I have is stopping the seed setting everywhere, even in the paths.xxx

  8. I can remember when you never saw grasses in a garden but slowly they’ve caught on, and I’m glad they have. I don’t really have a favorite but I do like the taller ones that make a big statement like this one.

  9. I love these videos Jason! And as I sat in traffic and looked out at a patch of switchgrass I was taken by its beauty and the way the light hit the grass and lit it up! Such a beautiful grass indeed and I am in need of some for my space!

  10. I am not much of a fan of ornamental grasses but I’d make an exception for that one. Unlike some others, it has structure and looks lush. I really should re-think my lack of appreciation for grasses. Not sure where it comes from. If it is a native grass why wouldn’t it seed out? I wonder what the ecological purpose of the seed is then …

  11. Switchgrass is awesome grass, Jason. I always wanted to have it in my garden, but always forget to saw it in fall. Well now I will remember!

  12. I always love grasses in other gardens, yet when I plant them in mine – and believe me I’ve tried a fair few – I never like the look of them.
    A useful plant that doesn’t set seed – often a complaint from many gardeners that choose alternatives.
    Having just checked my local nursery’s website – I see they stock Northwind, I must remember to pick it up next time I’m in and see if you can change my mind.

    • It’s taken me a while to develop an enthusiasm for grasses, and to find the ones that really work in my own. My motivation always came from seeing them in the gardens of friends.

  13. Oh my gosh there are so many great grasses, and Northwind is definitely one of them! I’m always tempted to divide it up and spread it throughout the garden, but have so far resisted.
    I also love ‘Dallas Blues’ panicum and of course ‘Karl Foerster’…. and what’s not to love about hakonechloeas and the giant reed grasses (arundo)? and there’s nothing wrong with just about any field of grass unmown and gone to seed, swaying in the wind… and little bluestem in its autumn orange in October. Ok I’ll stop, but you did ask.

  14. I was never a big fan of grasses, just because I have so many weedy grasses to contend with in my garden. But a few years ago, when I started a new garden area, I planted some Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ and just loved them. Then I added a couple ‘Shenandoah’ Panicum, the only variety the local nursery carried that year, I think. I do like the ‘Shenandoah’ which has reddish tipped pannicles. I got a free clump of ‘Northwind’ this spring, so I’m glad to see from your photos how beautiful a mature plant looks. I’ve done an about-face on grasses, and I especially love the way they look in the winter. I find grasses hard to photograph–Judy did a great job, and the videos really show off their beauty.

  15. Wow! Six feet and no need to stake makes this a great grass. The videos are great! That Judy is a keeper. Although I don’t have it in my garden, I love Mexican feather grass. The way it looks and moves is lovely and brushing against it is sweet. Mostly I tend to like the really huge grasses but hate the fact that they usually fall all over everything late in the season.

  16. Hello Jason, you do seem to be particularly enamoured with this grass and I can see why; it’s bold, imposing and architectural and looks stunning in your borders. Have you looked into getting other grasses with similar qualities such as some stipa, or – dare I say it – pampas?

  17. Panicum are lovely although they don’t grow so tall for me, I think my soil is just not heavy enough for them. My favourite grass is Miscanthus sin. ‘Morning Light’ it grows tall and with some irrigation forms a wonderful clump with flowers that also blow in the wind.

  18. I completely agree. Not only are the color and form excellent, but those inflorescences are gorgeous! I have mine in too much shade right now, so they’re kind of slouchy but they still add a lot to the planting.

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