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Gardening 101: Moor Grass

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Gardening 101: Moor Grass

January 8, 2019

Moor Grass, Sesleria: “Piet Oudolf’s Favorite”

As a garden designer, I was not always enamored with ornamental grasses. I thought every grass would need a harsh crew cut at the end of the season and feared my gardens would be left with unsightly knobs.  Then I fell in love with Sesleria. This versatile evergreen grass, commonly known as moor grass, made see a new world of design possibilities: grasses as ground covers, as edging plants, and as punctuation marks in a flower border.

Is Sesleria the right plant for your landscape? Please keep reading to learn more about this garden-changing grass.

At Scampston Hall in Yorkshire, the gardens by designer Piet Oudolf rely on perennial grasses for texture and contrast to deeply colored perennials such as salvias. See more of Scampston in Garden Visit: Dutch Master Piet Oudolf in Yorkshire. Photograph by Alhdata-src=
Above: At Scampston Hall in Yorkshire, the gardens by designer Piet Oudolf rely on perennial grasses for texture and contrast to deeply colored perennials such as salvias. See more of Scampston in Garden Visit: Dutch Master Piet Oudolf in Yorkshire. Photograph by Alh1 via Flickr.

I should start by saying that Piet Oudolf, the influential and renowned Dutch garden designer, often relies on the moor grass variety Sesleria autumnalis to carry the eye through the garden beds in his landscapes of perennials. (S. autumnalis was also chosen as Plant of the Week for New York City’s High Line garden, for which Oudolf chose the plants.) If Oudolf uses this grass, it is safe to say we should too.

Sesleria, stachys, and alliums are staples of Oudolf&#8
Above: Sesleria, stachys, and alliums are staples of Oudolf’s planting palettes. In Planting: A New Perspective, co-written with British garden designer Noel Kingsbury, Mr. Oudolf describes his general philosophy–you get better results from blending different kinds of plants rather than from planting a single type in a clump, for instance—and provides detailed layouts to achieve the effect. See more in Required Reading: How to Recreate Piet Oudolf’s Painterly Landscapes.

Sesleria is a genus of approximately 25 species native to the grasslands, meadows and highlands of Southern Europe. Despite being a cool-season grower, this grass has adapted to the rocky, drought-prone, and alkaline condition of its natural habitats and makes it unusually accepting of dry, slightly warmer conditions.

The name for the genus honors the 18th-century Italian physician and botanist, Leonardo Selser. And while the epithet and common name both refer to the plant’s fall-flowering time, here in California flowering occurs in the spring. This grass is adaptable and can take a wide range of conditions from dry to semi-wet and shade to sun, with some protection in hotter inland locations.

Moor grass (S. autumnalis ‘Greenlee’) punctuates a garden with well-behaved clumps and frames the bright purple flowers of alliums in a California garden. For prices and delivery information, see Seslerias at Greenlee and Associates.
Above: Moor grass (S. autumnalis ‘Greenlee’) punctuates a garden with well-behaved clumps and frames the bright purple flowers of alliums in a California garden. For prices and delivery information, see Seslerias at Greenlee and Associates.

Sesleria autumnalis is a beautiful evergreen meadow grass that forms tidy pale green clumps from one to two feet high and wide with pale green leaf blades that arch gracefully. In cooler climates it develops a lovely mellow yellow tint in the fall. In early to mid-spring, narrow green flower spikes with white anthers emerge from 18-inch-tall stems,  The flower spikes fade to a pleasant tan and then gray as summer and fall marches on but still remain attractive.

Blue moor grass (S. caerulea). Photograph by Chris Hunkeler via Flickr.
Above: Blue moor grass (S. caerulea). Photograph by Chris Hunkeler via Flickr.

Two types of sesleria are worth knowing about: Sesleria autumnalis (autumn moor grass) and Sesleria caerulea (blue moor grass). Both can be used as successful non-traditional  ground covers and can hold their own as edging plants or mixed into borders. Also both are bunching and grow in clumps with little spread.

S. caerulea is an evergreen clumping grass which grows to to 8 inches tall by 1 foot wide with thin, upright bicolored leaves (the upper side of the leaf is a rich green and the underside a bluish-white, giving the plant a definite blue cast). Spikes of blackish flowers accented with yellow anthers appear in spring., Plant in full sun to part shade and irrigate regularly.

To design a backyard meadow for Mill Valley, CA for homeowners Catherine and Greg Stern, garden designer Sarah Madeline Stuckey Coates worked with grass specialist John Greenlee to plant mix of grasses including Carex pansa, Festuca mairei, and S. autumnalis ‘Greenlee’. See more at Garden Visit: A Backyard Meadow in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: To design a backyard meadow for Mill Valley, CA for homeowners Catherine and Greg Stern, garden designer Sarah Madeline Stuckey Coates worked with grass specialist John Greenlee to plant mix of grasses including Carex pansa, Festuca mairei, and S. autumnalis ‘Greenlee’. See more at Garden Visit: A Backyard Meadow in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

Cheat Sheet

  • Plant clumps of moor grass close together to create the effect of a lawn or space them and interplant with companying perennials, wildflowers, or early spring bulbs.
  • Great companions for moor grass include salvia, echinacea, and achillea.
  • Sesleria visually soften edges of hard masonry; plant near driveways, walkways, and patios.
  • Sesleria autumnalis has a neutral color which works with most color palettes, and is especially lovely with yellows, oranges, and whites.
  • Blue moor grass is a wonderful, non-invasive ground cover (best used en masse).
  • Moor grass is a great choice for a seaside garden as the flower stalks and blades move gracefully in the wind.
Sesleria autumnalis &#8
Above: Sesleria autumnalis ‘Greenlee’ is a cross that grass guru John Greenlee discovered growing in his nursery in Pomona, California. For prices and purchasing information, see Seslerias at Greenlee and Associates.

Keep It Alive

  • Seslerias prefer a sunny or partly shaded site with average watering.
  •  Apply mulch to protect moor grass roots from the cold and to help conserve water in the summer.
  • Moor grasses should be lightly groomed in late winter to remove tired foliage and make way for fresh foliage.
  • Sesleria is pest resistant and fairly disliked by deer.
  • Moor grass is frost hardy (plant it in USDA zones 5 to 10).

For more growing tips, see Moor Grass: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated design guides to Grasses 101. For more landscaping ideas for our favorite perennial grasses, see:

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