Create drama with grasses

Ornamental grasses are enjoying a hey-day in modern garden design, adding romance, movement and special colour effects. Louise Curley nominates her top 10



1. Best for colour: Imperata cylindrica
For striking colour it’s hard to beat Japanese blood grass, with its narrow upright leaf blades that are green at the base becoming blood red and deep burgundy towards the tip. The leaves glow like flickering flames when backlit. It’s not completely hardy, so plant it in a sunny spot in well-drained soil and mulch in autumn. Or, grow in a container and bring under cover in winter. Plant with heleniums and rudbeckia or for a dramatic contrast alongside the blue-flowered hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbago). H40cm (16in) S30cm (12in)

2. Best for height: Stipa gigantea
This  statuesque grass has a delicate, transparent quality. Clumps of slender leaves grow to about 60cm (2ft) tall, then produce towering stems topped with delicate oat-like flowers from midsummer. Once the seeds have been shed the seed heads continue to look good well into winter. Plant so it can catch the sun; its golden seedheads will shimmer like gold. Clumps are hardy but need full sun and a light, well-drained soil. The leaves have sharp edges so wear gloves and long sleeves when handling. Comb through the plant in spring to remove dead foliage. H2.5m (8ft) S1.2m (4ft)

3. Best for seedheads: Chasmanthium latifoilum
A rarely grown grass that originates from North America where it’s also known as northern sea oats. Its loose clumps of broad leaves resemble bamboo, accompanied by masses of unusual flat flower heads that look as though they’re been pressed by an iron. The whole plant dries to a lovely rich russet brown colour in autumn. Cut back stems to ground level in early spring. It needs fertile soil that’s moist but well-drained in full sun. H1m (39in) S60cm (24in)

 4. Best for screening: Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’
A stiff grass with an erect habit, which makes it perfect for use as a screening plant. Plant it in rows to create an unusual hedge. It’s one of the earliest grasses to start into growth in spring when slender green leaves and stems emerge followed by wispy, buff-coloured flowers. Will happily grow in full sun or light shade in most soils as long as they’re well-drained. The slender columns of bleached, straw-like stems stand well throughout winter. H1.8m (6ft) S60cm (24in)

5. Best for groundcover: Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’
This wonderful low-growing ornamental grass forms tumbling cascades of striped yellow and green leaves. It looks fabulous when planted in large drifts at the edge of a path or underneath trees and shrubs where it creates a soft floaty feel. Plant in well-drained soil in full sun or part shade - the leaves can develop red tints when grown in full sun. Cut back to the base in spring. H35cm (15in) S40cm (16in)

 6. Best for fluffy flowers: Pennisetum villosum
A graceful plant with fine slender leaves and large, fluffy, caterpillar-like flowers. These whitish-green plumes take on purple tints as they mature. It’s a tender perennial that’s often grown as an annual. It may survive the winter in a mild area; plant in a sunny, well-drained location and add a mulch to protect its roots from the cold. It works well edging borders, but also makes a good container plant, which means it can be brought under cover in late autumn to protect from the worst of the winter cold and wet. H and S60cm (24in)

7. Best for stripes: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’
An upright grass with a fountain shape thanks to its elegant arching stems and foliage. Its ‘zebra’ name comes from the cream horizontal stripes across its green leaves. This variegation is temperature dependent and usually appears in midsummer but the leaves can scorch in full sun, so plant in light shade. In hot summers silky, finger-like, coppery-pink flower spikes can appear. The foliage turns a tan colour in autumn. Cut down in late winter to allow new growth to appear. H1.2m (4ft) S45cm (18in)

8. Best for container growing: Festuca glauca
A compact grass that forms low-growing hummocks of grey-blue, needle-thin leaves that’s perfect for growing in containers. The evergreen foliage provides structure for container displays all year round. Flower spikes appear in summer and fade to brown. Comb through the plant in late winter to remove any dead foliage. Plant in spring with dainty white violas and dwarf white narcissus, then replace them with white or purple summer bedding and perennials such as salvias, Cosmos sonata and Bacopa ‘Snowflake. H30cm (12in) S25cm (10in)

9. Best for winter structure: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’
A majestic plant that has fine arching green leaves with a white stripe down the centre and spectacular purplish-brown silky flowers that glisten in summer. Foliage turns a lovely russet brown in autumn and holds its shape into late winter when it can be cut down to the ground. Plant in blocks or drifts to form natural screens or as specimen plants in a border to add strong vertical shapes. Needs a sunny, open position and well-drained soil. H2m (7ft) S1.2m (4ft)

10. Best for movement: Hordeum jubatum
Foxtail barley is a short-lived perennial, but it can be treated as an annual and is easy to grow from seed. It will self-sow in free-draining soil in a warm, sunny position and produces delicate pale pink, silvery, barley-like flowers. Plant in drifts and the flowers will sway in the breeze creating attractive waves. Plants thrive in gravel gardens or at the front of a border where it can be interplanted among dainty plants that have an airy quality, such as Shirley poppies, love-in-a-mist or verbena ‘Lollipop’ – the shorter version of Verbena bonariensis. H60cm (24in) S30 (12in)