Proper Way to Grow Dwarf Hair Grass

Dwarf hair grass, or Eleocharis Parvula as it is scientifically known, is a popular choice when it comes to adding plant life to your aquarium. This extremely versatile plant is commonly used to “carpet” areas of tanks and gives off a seaweed-like vibe, making the motion in the aquarium very obvious.

There are various ways of implementing dwarf hair grass in your environment, but not all of them are for beginners. (For beginners, I recommend you read this post) From the absolute novice to the well-experienced aquarist, dwarf hair grass can be the extra touch that takes your tank from pretty good to great! Let’s take a look at a few methods to grow dwarf hair grass.

Carpet? Berber or Shag…

Just as you must decide on a type of carpet for your new home, you must choose a style for your dwarf hair grass. Some people like to achieve a grassy, dense effect by planting dwarf hair grass in tight clumps, similar to what you would see in well-manicured lawn. Others like a sparse look and use the plant as an accent around other decorations. The thinned out approach entails dotting dwarf hair grass around the edges of rocks or plants to create a softer appearance.

Regardless of the approach you take, one oddity in regards to dwarf hair grass is its tendency to “remember” haircuts. That is to say, generally speaking, that cutting the dwarf hair grass short prior to planting it will usually result in a plant that does not grow very long. Meanwhile, leaving it untrimmed will result in longer growing varieties. The only limitation is your sense of style so choose a detail level that matches your aquarium. Try a mixture of both long and short if you like, layering longer strands near the back of the aquarium and shorter strands in front.

Planting Your Dwarf Hair Grass

The particular approach you take when planting your dwarf hair grass is entirely up to you. However, there are some basic tips that will make the process less frustrating. Once you have decided on how you want your plants to lie, place individual sections of dwarf hair grass approximately one inch into your tank’s substrate or gravel system. Consider picking up a special pair of tweezers just for this task, as it will make insertion that much easier.

Dwarf Hair Grass is a good plant to create a carpet in your aquarium as previously mentioned in my carpet guide post and infographic. Carpet-type installations call for a one to two inch space between each plant. Arrange the “saplings” in a box pattern, with one plant at each of the four corners and one smack dab in the middle. This will make for a nice layer of coverage.

Like many other aquatic plants, dwarf hair grass deploys runners throughout the substrate (or gravel), which will accelerate both the growth and the spread of the plant. Choose a soil solution with small granule sizea soil solution with small granule size, as these will be easier for the dwarf hair grass to absorb.

Maintaining Your Dwarf Hair Grass

Dwarf hair grass is fairly neutral when it comes to maintenance. There are many higher maintenance plants as well as some that are even easier to “set and forget.” They are particularly well suited for low light levels, making them an excellent choice in your nocturnal themed aquascapes. As with most other aquarium plants, increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will result in faster growth. Read up on fertilizer solutions for all the plants you plan on using in your tank to find a method that will work for you. There are plenty of short-term and long-term solutions on the market today, guaranteeing a fit for any size aquarium or budget.

Let’s Decorate!

As mentioned earlier, there are several different layouts to choose from when it comes to dwarf hair grass. If you have already decided on a theme or style for your tank, then let your plant choices stem (pun intended!) from that selection.

When all else fails, experiment with different layouts and styles until you find one that checks all of your boxes. Dwarf hair grass can also be used in tandem with other carpeting plants (such as utricularia graminifolia), which can add an extra layer of complexity to even the simplest underwater scenes. Don’t be afraid to mix and match!

Mexican feather grass (Nassella/Stipa tenuissima)

Nassella tenuissima (Na-SELL-a ten-yu-ISS-i-ma). If there ever was a plant whose description matched the sound of its name, Nassella tenuissima would be it. All those esses suggest a soft and sighing breeze.
Nassella tenuissima is a wavy and graceful member of the grass family. It serves as a tallish ground cover, especially in narrow, stand-alone planters, in full to partial sun. The slightest zephyr makes it quiver, creating an undulating, S-shaped movement through the garden, an appropriate complement to trees rustling overhead.
Nassella (Stipa) tenuissima is variously known as Mexican feather grass, fine stem tussock grass, Texas needle grass, pony tails, and angel’s hair.
Its plethora of common names is an indication of the fond esteem in which it is held among a growing number of plant enthusiasts.
It is native to Mexico, Texas and New Mexico but has been exported to the four corners of the earth. It grows best in full sun to light shade and develops as dense fountain-like masses of ultrathin green threads woven together.
Its silver to gold inflorescences, depending on the sunlight and vantage point of the observer, are visible from June until September. In the fall, the plant turns to the color of straw.
Although it will never serve the same purpose as a lawn, and you cannot play a game of croquet on it, Mexican feather grass is definitely a low-maintenance lawn alternative. Since it continually self sows, you do not have to worry about it dying out or losing its vitality over time, as is the case with many ornamental grasses. You can also control its color, to a certain extent, cutting it back when it becomes too tawny for your taste. New growth is always green.
As is the case of many other ornamental grasses, Nassella tenuissima may be minimally or regularly watered. The more you water, the faster it grows, but it can subsist on very little water once established. It is critical, in any case, that the soil be allowed to dry out thoroughly between waterings. Poorly drained soil or over watering will surely result in fungus problems. Crown rot, which occurs when water settles around the base of a clumping, dry climate grass, is usually lethal.
Mexican feather grass grows to about 2 feet in height. It provides a wonderful contrast to bronze or dark purple New Zealand flax cultivars such as ‘Plum Delight’. In the manner of ornamental grasses in general, it may be drastically cut back in late winter just prior to the resumption of growth in the spring.
Alternatively, at least with this plant and its needle thin foliage, a vigorous raking may be sufficient to remove dead growth. Mexican feather grass is recommended for erosion control on slopes because of its modest water requirement and its ability to self sow.
With water rationing apparently here to stay, Nassella tenuissima is only one of many ornamental grasses, requiring no more than once or twice a week irrigation, that have been popping up in gardens and landscapes in our area.
A popular design concept sets off burgundy fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) against blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), blue rye grass (Leymus arenarius ‘Glaucus’) or blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea).
Variegated grasses are also popular, with gold and silver banded pampas grasses (Cortaderia selloana ‘Gold Band’ and ‘Silver Comet’), white- and yellow-striped zebra grasses (Miscanthus varieties), and variegated reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’) leading the way.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is used in Asian cooking and will grow its best in a garden of partial shade. Sugar cane (Saccharinum officinarum), which grows quite easily in the Valley, is another edible member of the grass family. Its almost woody canes provide a sweet snack to chew on throughout the summer months.
Q. Our neighbors have provided for us a new attractive wood fence that is more like a wall. No breezes will come through. We want to plant along the fence, some natives that will have some color and some that might reach about 5 feet high. Sun only comes in the middle of the day. We also wanted to know if you have any recommendations for shade other than California lilac (Ceanothus), which does well for us growing under oak and sycamore trees in decomposed granite.
– Bette and Don Simons, Sherman Oaks
A. Mahonia nevinii is a carefree shrub that could easily be trained into a 5-foot-tall hedge. It has small, silver gray, prickly leaves, yellow flowers, and plentiful red berries. Other possibilities include the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), called fried egg plant on account of its white flowers with yellow centers, and big berry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca), with blue foliage and cinnamon bark. Many native sages (Salvias), most with blue or purple flowers, could be considered for covering your fence. The most colorful California native, in my opinion, is fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum), and it would do well with the few hours of midday sun that you mention. Native penstemons will provide long-lasting pink, red, or purple flowers that resemble small trumpets. For colorful planting under oaks, Pacific Coast irises are your best bet. They bloom in purple, blue, pink, salmon or white with yellow markings.
Tip of the week
Grasses may be used in wide borders around a more water needy lawn or flower bed. You do not have to give up your favorite garden features to accommodate ornamental grasses.
If you have dry spots in your garden that the sprinklers barely seem to reach, you might consider planting ornamental grasses in those areas. A large selection of ornamental grasses are available at Greenlee Nursery ( in Chino.
Many of these grasses may also be special ordered through your neighborhood nursery.

Chelsea Flower Show is good for grasses. Most years they feature heavily in a garden or two and attract attention like the starlets pouting on press day. But it is probably truer to say that grasses are good for Chelsea. They perform in a show garden with exactly the right mixture of panache and casual sophistication. Three examples spring to mind. James Alexander Sinclair in 1999 using Stipa arundinacea, or pheasant grass, mixed in careless abandon (which probably took weeks of painstaking work) with irises, verbascums, foxgloves and suchlike to make a ‘tameflower’ meadow, which I recall the judges inexplicably decided was only worth a bronze medal.

This year Christopher Bradley Hole fastidiously combined Stipa gigantea with old roses and aquilegias, Eremurus and Nectaroscordum siculum. And in 2000, Piet Oudolf and Arnie Maynard won best in show with a garden dominated by grasses. Piet Oudolf is, of course, the grass guru and probably the single most influential figure behind the current vogue for grasses, although in fact they have been used in Europe for over 100 years and in America since the Thirties, taking their inspiration from the steppes and prairies.

We have used grasses here for the past five or six years, and they are now a reference point in our Jewel garden and the dry borders we made this spring. I can only pass on my own experiences with them, but we’ve learnt the following lessons.

Stipas do not like being moved. They have very shallow roots and take a while to recover from the shock of upheaval, especially when at all mature. We only have two kinds, the astonishing Stipa gigantea, which throws its oaten heads into the air like tracer trails and catches the midsummer setting sun like burning brands. It is worth growing for those few evenings alone. S gigantea is a big, bulky plant and likes light and air, so don’t cram it into the back of the border or try, as we have done, to plant it in a group to bulk it out, not unless you have the most enormous borders. They also do not like wet, heavy soil.

S arundinacea, or pheasant grass, is a star. We began growing it in an informal, loose-ish sort of way, but a couple of winters ago we replanted our dozen or so plants as formal marking points, and this works very well. What makes them special is the leaves, shot with pinks and russets, and the hairy flowers that flop and fall everywhere – two quite different modes. Unlike their gigantic cousin, they move easily and seed everywhere and the seedlings are easy to pot up, grow on and replant strategically. A top plant.

Stipa tenuifolia is delicate, dramatic and good for a container or the front of a border; it also has amazing longevity throughout the season. In February it is one of the brightest things in a border and its feathery heads are silkily irresistible. This lasts well into summer, although it needs supporting if it is not to fall over its neighbours.

Panicum miliaceum ‘Violaceum’ (millet) has the loveliest flower head of all grasses, with the seeds hanging like a plum-coloured mane off each stem. It is an annual, easy to grow, move and accommodate. But be warned, it seeds so freely and so fast that it can easily become an annoying weed. Quaking grass, Briza maxima, falls into this category, so we have stopped growing it. Lyme grass, or Leymus arenarius, has fabulous blue foliage and flower heads like wheat. It is invasive, but too good to ignore. It looks great in a pot or in a border, with very poor soil, mixed with sedums and Verbena bonariensis.

The miscanthus family is our banker. They always perform exactly as required, are tough, and need very little support. They are incredibly drought-tolerant, but will also perform well in soggy conditions. They are very upright and elegant too, which makes them good for the middle or back of a border. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ is huge, with flower heads that start out pinkish but take a distinctly silverfish turn in autumn. ‘Malepartus’ has flowers that are plum-plumed and open out with a golden thread. They make superb cut flowers. ‘Ferner Osten’ flowers especially early and has russet flowers with white tips. It is medium height and thus adaptable in a border. M var. purpurescens does not really flower with us because it is too cold, although ironically it is one of the hardiest of all grasses. It has the best orange, bronze foliage of all grasses in autumn but needs moisture to do its best.

At the moment I have two favourites among delicate grasses. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Golden Dew’ is like a mini stipa, but its flower heads gently jangle with gold. It will take much more moisture than a stipa, too. The other choice is the elegant moor grass, Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Windspiel’. It has oaten heads on 6ft golden stems that gently move with the wind, without, apparently, getting bashed about. Eventually the stems self-prune by snapping off at the end of winter. It is probably happiest in acidic bog but will grow almost anywhere.

Carex comans ‘Bronze Form’ adds dimension to a planting group. I like it in summer as a counterbalance to the lushness around it, and in winter for playing dead without losing any of its body or form. It does best in full sun.

That is just a personal taster. There are many, many more to choose from and I cannot conceive of a garden that could not contain and entertain some grasses and not be the better for it.

Mexican Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass

Mexican feather grass (Nassella or Stipa tenuissima) brims with grace. The slightest wind sends the delicate flower heads and thin leaves of this perennial grass into motion. Native to North American drylands, Mexican feather grass thrives in quick-draining, lean soil and tolerates drought with ease. It reseeds to naturalize in meadows or on slopes for erosion control. Pair it with flowering perennials or succulents.

genus name
  • Nassella or Stipa tenuissima
  • Part Sun,
  • Sun
plant type
  • Perennial
  • 1 to 3 feet
  • To 3 feet wide
flower color
  • White
season features
  • Summer Bloom,
  • Colorful Fall Foliage,
  • Winter Interest
problem solvers
  • Drought Tolerant,
  • Slope/Erosion Control
special features
  • Low Maintenance,
  • Good for Containers
  • 6,
  • 7,
  • 8,
  • 9,
  • 10
  • Division

Suits Dry Landscapes

Mexican feather grass is native to west Texas, New Mexico, and portions of Mexico. Its graceful mounding habit and fine-texture, semi-evergreen foliage is a welcome addition to dry landscapes. Mexican feather grass reseeds with gusto in some areas and has been identified as invasive in some states—including California—where it is not recommended for planting. Check with your state extension service before planting Mexican feather grass.

Find more tips on landscaping in dry climates like Texas here.

Low-Water Wonder

Who says dry landscapes look like multiple shades of taupe? Pair Mexican feather grass with other perennials that thrive in dry conditions for a low-maintenance color- and texture-rich landscape that is an oasis for wildlife. Great plants for dry landscapes include sedum, which stores water in its succulent leaves while its flowers provide color for weeks in late summer and fall. Black-eyed Susan, a pollinator favorite, boasts bright yellow flowers. Coreopsis begins blooming in early summer and continues until the first frost.

You can also call on Mexican feather grass when planting containers for hot, dry locations. This tough grass adds graceful movement and long-lasting texture to potted gardens from planting in early spring until frost. Pair it with low-water annuals, such as lantana, moss rose, and strawflower.

Discover tough perennials that thrive even in dry shade.

Mexican Feather Grass Care Must-Knows

This ornamental grass grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. Water plants weekly during the first growing season after planting. Moving forward, you’ll need to water this perennial only during extreme dry periods. Cut back or rake out dead foliage in early spring before the plant begins growing.

Divide Mexican feather grass plants in early spring, right after they begin to send up new green shoots. Dig up the entire clump, then use a sharp spade to cut the clump into three or four sections. Replant each section, watering it well after planting.

Plant Mexican Feather Grass With:

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Sedums are nearly the perfect plants. They look good from the moment they emerge from the soil in spring and continue to look fresh and fabulous all growing season long. Many are attractive even in winter when their foliage dies and is left standing. They’re also drought-tolerant and need very little if any care. They’re favorites of butterflies and useful bees. The tall types are outstanding for cutting and drying. Does it get better than that? Only in the fact that there are many different types of this wonderful plant, from tall types that will top 2 feet to low-growing groundcovers that form mats. All thrive in full sun with good drainage. Ground cover types do a good job of suppressing weeds, but seldom tolerate foot traffic. Some of the smaller ones are best grown in pots or treated as houseplants.

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Asters get their name from the Latin word for “star,” and their flowers are indeed the superstars of the fall garden. Some types of this native plant can reach up to 6 feet with flowers in white and pinks but also, perhaps most strikingly, in rich purples and showy lavenders.Not all asters are fall bloomers. Extend the season by growing some of the summer bloomers, as well. Some are naturally compact; tall types that grow more than 2 feet tall benefit from staking or an early-season pinching or cutting back by about one-third in July or so to keep the plant more compact.

Most of us know what to do with our big grasses that go dormant each winter: Grab a bungee cord, tie the grass up, and use an electric hedge trimmer to buzz the column of foliage to the ground. But what about those tricky grasses that are evergreen or ones that have a ground-hugging habit? When and how do you prune those garden staples that don’t fit neatly into the “large and goes dormant” category?

If you are hesitant to treat your sedge the same as your maiden grass, it’s for good reason. Unconventional grassy plants can’t be trimmed using generalized pruning rules. They require special timing and techniques on your part to look their best. Start by figuring out which category your grasses fall under: evergreen or goes dormant, large or small. This allows you to select the best pruning method, even if you are not sure of the exact varieties you have.

Small and goes dormant

Photo: Before and after pruning Japanese forest grass

When: Yearly, late fall to mid-spring

How: If you like to prune, these short, spreading grasses are satisfying to tackle. Though you can prune any time after they go brown, hold off on cutting these grasses back as long as possible. Even brown, they provide winter interest and act as sculptural sentinels when covered in snow. If you clean up too quickly, you miss a lot of winter beauty. Birds also love to pack and scratch at the seeds in late winter when food is harder to come by.

Depending on your weather though, at a certain point these grasses will start to crumple and look thoroughly messy. When that time comes, use hedging shears to cut these grasses back to a height of 3 inches for the smallest selections – those that are under 3 feet tall, and to 6 inches for taller varieties – those that are over 3 feet tall. If you cut too low, you could be in danger of cutting into the crown of the plant. Moisture then tends to settle into the crowns and rots them out.

While some of these grasses have obvious growth points at the base and can be cut a little lower, others form rounded clumps – and it’s not always clear when you are in danger of cutting into the body of the crown. It’s good to leave a couple inches of leeway and not cut directly next to the growth points so that dew or frost settles a couple inches away from the crown. When I cut too close to the crown, I usually lose a few clumps throughout the plant and need to pull out the rotten bits a couple of months into the season. Pruning should be done every year to give the new foliage a clean slate from which to shine.

Large and goes dormant

What: Maiden grass (Miscanthus), feather reed grass (Calamagrostis), Giant pheasant’s tail grass (Stipa gigantea)

Photo: Before, during, and after pruning Miscanthus

While pruning large grasses that go dormant is a similar process to pruning small ones, there’s something about having a huge mass of foliage towering over your head that makes it seem like a more intimidating task. Plus, bigger grasses can have sharp leaf blades, so if you prune without preparing you can get dozens of tiny stinging cuts on your face and arms.

When: Yearly, late fall to mid-spring Just like with small dormant grasses, it’s best to hold off on pruning as long as possible to preserve the winter interest and to provide food for birds. You can prune anytime after the plants go fully brown, as long as you do so before they start growing again in spring (you don’t want to nip the fresh new growth tips). The grasses themselves will give you your cue. Maiden grasses start shedding soon after the new year, so as soon as you notice them making a mess, it’s time to prune.

How: Even if you choose a sunny day to prune, wear a long-sleeved shirt and gloves so the blades of grass don’t cut your skin. Start by wrapping a piece of rope around the outside of the grass and tie it into a tight column of foliage. This way, the grass will stay bundled as you prune and not explode into pieces everywhere. Once your grass is tied up, use handheld or powered hedging shears to cut the entire grass to about 10 inches tall. If you’re using powered hedging shears, it’s helpful to have a friend hold up the grass so it doesn’t fall on you as you cut. Just be careful not to trim anyone’s ankles!

Though small grasses are easy to clean up, big grasses make a big mess. Plan to put down a fresh layer of mulch after you’re done pruning. This covers any tiny bits of grass that won’t rake up. (More on pruning Miscanthus here and here.)

Small and stays evergreen

Top: Getting the brown blades out of blue oat grass Bottom: Mexican feather grass before, a month after, and three months after pruning

These little charmers are some of the easiest plants to tuck into your garden, because they fit almost anywhere, have year-round good looks, and need little care. Yet even the most easy-going of grasses need periodic attention to perform their best.

When: any time for cleanup, early to mid-spring for rejuvenation

How: By the end of the growing season, brown foliage can pile up inside these plants and give them an unkempt appearance. Luckily, there’s an easy fix to clean them up: just put on some rubber gloves (cheap dishwashing gloves work great) and run your fingers through the grass as though you were combing its hair. The spent foliage clings to the rubber and comes out in easy clumps. You may not be able to clean out all the spent blades, but removing some will trigger the grass to refresh itself.

Sometimes, of course, a stronger solution is needed. If painters have trampled on your evergreen grasses or if wind or winter cold have damaged even the freshest leaves, it may be time to go in for the big chop. In early to mid-spring, use your hand pruners or hedging shears to reduce the height of your grasses by two-thirds. While this leaves your grasses looking like awkward hedgehogs, these grasses bounce back fairly quickly and usually look good again in 2 to 3 months.

Cutting these grasses back too much will allow moisture to gather on their crowns, which can cause rot. When I’ve experimented with cutting back more than two thirds, portions of the grass died a soggy death. If you’re overly zealous with the pruners, you could also cut into the growth points on the crowns without knowing it – especially on sedges, which can form a mounded crown.

Rejuvenation pruning shouldn’t be done more than every 2 to 3 years because small evergreen grasses have slightly less vigor than grasses that go dormant. When you cut off all that foliage, the plant is losing energy stored in its leaves, so it ends up with less energy to put into producing new growth. I like to give the grasses time to recover before subjecting them again to a stern pruning. The exception is Mexican feather grass, which can be pruned back hard any time its foliage clumps into unsightly dreadlocks:

Large and stays evergreen

What: Flax (Phormium), Cordyline (Cordyline), Yucca (Yucca)

Photo: Before, during and after pruning a Phormium/ flax

Although technically not “grasses”, these large, spiky plants stand as focal points in the landscape, drawing attention with their bold colors in dramatic shapes. This makes it all the more important to prune right, because a poor pruning job will be noticed by everyone. Unlike with large deciduous grasses which are whacked back almost to the ground, subtlety is key when pruning large evergreen “grasses”. There are many reasons to prune these plants, ranging from the removal of dead flowers and ratty leaves, to keeping plants in scale with their surroundings. With brightly colored flax, there’s another reason to prune: The new growth is more brilliantly-colored.

When: Anytime for cleanup and resizing; mid-spring for rejuvenation

How: When pruning to freshen up foliage, I simply select the oldest or most damaged leaves and cut them out at the base. This might seem like a time-consuming task, but once you get into a rhythm, it goes pretty quickly. Use the same technique to prune for size. Grasp the tallest leaves, and one by one, cut them out as far down towards the base of the plant as possible. When pruning for size, move around the plant as you go, removing up to two thirds of the leaves, which is the point at which the pruning becomes obvious.

Sometimes, however, selective pruning just doesn’t cut it. If your plant is overgrown, has significant winter damage, or must be cut to make room for construction, you can prune severely in mid-spring. Use hedging shears to cut off all the foliage at the base. You’ll end up with a mound about 1 foot tall. While cutting off all the foliage is not an ideal approach, these varieties grow back quickly and look good again in about four months. They do, however, have an awkward phase during their regrowth: When the blades start to regrow, some will look damaged and have clipped tips, so you’ll need to selectively prune again to remove those. This allows the fresh new growth to shine.

Over time, some varieties of Yucca and Cordyline grow quite tall and develop a long trunk. If you don’t want yours to look like a tree from a Dr. Seuss story book, cut the plant midway down the stem; it should pre-sprout from just under the cut point. In areas where these plants are marginally hardy, however, cut the trunk back by only one third. Sometimes that stem will re-sprout, but occasionally, the plant will sprout up from the base, instead. One last caveat: Be sure to wear eye protection any time you are pruning spiky grass-like plants. When you are focusing on removing leaves at the base, it’s easy to lean down and get stabbed in the eyeball with a sharp leaf tip. That’s a definite pruning “don’t”.

(Article originally appeared in Fine Gardening Magazine)

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