Sometimes called Chinese silver grass, Miscanthus sinensis cultivars are some of the best ornamental grasses for the Sydney garden. The original species is native to South-East Asia. The trend for using ornamental grasses came into vogue about twenty years ago, as part of a move to 'naturalistic' gardening, combining them with herbaceous plants that were adapted to similar conditions, such as the many prairie flowers from North America, but nowadays they are used in many ways in our gardens.
Ornamental grasses bring a unique dimension to the garden with their graceful movement in the breeze and their simple elegance, unique linear texture and arching form. They can be used as a focal point in a border, or repeated amongst plantings to create a unifying effect through the garden. Ornamental grass foliage provides an excellent contrast to big bold leaves or rounded shrubs. They have interesting and often unusually coloured plumes of flowers in summer and autumn, adding subtle hues to planting schemes for months on end, and are useful in vases too!
Miscanthus sinensis cultivars are trouble free and easy to grow, and are adaptable to various garden positions. It is important to give them enough space, so that they are not hemmed in by other plants, causing them to lose the impact of their form. In general, they will grow in full sun and accept most soils, and the clumps become better as each year passes, making an impressive statement in the garden. The current cultivars do not seem to self-seed.
'Sarabande' (pictured in the previous paragraph) has a fountain of silver-ribbed leaves (ht 1.6 m) and mauve-silver flowers held high above the foliage from late summer and remaining in winter; its foliage takes on tawny hues through autumn and winter. Plants with flowers held on arching spikes or spires, such as Salvia and the big annual Amaranthus caudatus, can provide a satisfying harmony of form with this grass. 'Variegatus' (ht 1.5-1.8 m) has arching creamy-white variegated leaves and a pinkish-white flower. It can provide an effective contrast to purple leaves, such as those of dark Canna or shrubby Euphorbia cotinifolia, as well as being a good partner to echo crisp white flowers, such as Shasta daisies. The Miscanthus sinensis cultivar 'Cabaret' (ht 1.8 m) is like a giant version of 'Variegatus', and forms a robust clump.
'Zebrinus' (ht 1.5-1.8 m) - sometimes known as zebra grass - has broad dark green leaves marked with horizontal yellow stripes and pinkish-fawn flowers in late summer/autumn. With its interesting foliage, it looks particularly effective with some of the yellow flowers of late summer/early autumn such as Dahlia, Rudbeckia and Salvia madrensis. Note that the new spring foliage may emerge plain green: it will develop its stripes once the weather warms up.
I do find I sometimes need to support these grasses with cradle stakes to stop them flopping over too much. Sometimes if they flop too much in summer, flattening other plants around them, I cut the outer edges of the grass off, leaving the central upright part. The clump seems to regrow a bit after this and looks quite good. Other cultivars, such as 'Hiawatha', have a more naturally vertical growth habit. Miscanthus do tend to grow into quite big clumps eventually. I cut them as low to the ground as possible around June (we now use a hedge trimmer to do this on our big clumps) so that the regrowth can commence in late winter. If the clump has become too big, the best time to remove some of it is at this time, when they are cut low. I attack them with a mattock, chopping pieces off the sides until I reduce the girth of the clump. The pieces thus removed can be used to propagate new plants, if there are some roots attached. Miscanthus only seem to need routine feeding and watering once established, and seem to suffer from no pests or diseases.