When winter grips my garden, I’m thankful for any little bit of green that can be found. In my Japanese garden – where the browns of soil, stone, fencing and a few remaining leaves dominate – any green stands out like a beacon in a dark night. So the mondo grasses I’ve planted there have become favorites in the winter scene of this small but peaceful space.

Dwarf Mondo Grass walkway

Dwarf mondo grass is slow-growing, but it makes a great groundcover.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

Mondo grass edging

Mondo grass is a useful – and attractive – edging plant, too.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

Dwarf mondo grass between paver stones

If you’re looking for the right plant to use between pavers or stepping stones, dwarf mondo grass is a great selection.

Photo Credit: Gerald Klingaman

Black Mondo grass

Make a bold statement in your garden with black mondo grass.

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) is a member of the lily family and is closely related to its more familiar cousin, Liriope. But mondo grass resembles Liriope about as much as the average Japanese citizen resembles a sumo wrestler. Everything about Ophiopogon is about one-third the size of the typical Liriope – with the common mondo grass reaching just 6-8 inches tall and leaves measuring only about a quarter inch wide. And dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nanus’) is even smaller – just one-third the size of the typical mondo, only reaching 2 inches tall.

As you likely surmised from my adoration of mondo grass in winter, the plant’s grasslike, dark green leaves are evergreen. They grow in small tufts from the slowly spreading underground crown. Come August, this small grass puts forth tiny flowers. The Latin name “Ophiopogon” is a botanist’s way of describing the bloom, and it translates as “snake with a beard.” Personally, I haven’t seen many bearded snakes, so the obscure Latin description is less than helpful in describing the tiny, light blue flower spikes that bloom buried in the foliage. I happen to think the little quarter-inch blooms look quite a bit like grape hyacinth flowers scattered up the stem. (The dwarf form is sparse-flowering, and you really have to get down on your hands and knees when looking for the few tiny bloom spikes.)

Mondo grass is listed as hardy in only USDA Hardiness zones 7-10, but for 30 years I’ve seen one form or another growing in sites where temperatures dip down to around 0 degrees F. Furthermore, the rather trying winter of 2000 – where temperatures got down to 0 degrees F for several weeks – caused absolutely no damage to my Arkansas planting.

Still, I wouldn’t try planting this lovely grass too far north of its hardiness range. The plant truly does best in warmer climates. Gardeners in Louisiana and across the Deep South use dwarf mondo grass to perfection as a lawn under their grand live oaks and Southern magnolias. While plantings look like large patches of turf, they won’t stand up to heavy foot traffic – but light foot traffic won’t do it any harm.

For gardeners without a lot of patience, mondo grass can prove trying because it does grow slowly. In fact, it took nearly three years for some patches I planted (using grasses grown in 2-inch pots and spaced 6 inches apart) to completely fill in. For faster establishment and spreading, try working some organic matter and maybe even copious amounts of sand into the soil. Another strategy is to break the plants apart into individual divisions containing just a piece of the crown and several clusters of leaves. (These small divisions should be planted about 2 inches apart.)

Dwarf mondo grass grows equally well in sun or shade, but because of its slow growth, it’s most commonly seen in the shade. (In sunny sites, other grasses will jump the fence to invade this tiny plant’s space.) You can feed the grass during spring and early summer with a liquid fertilizer to speed its growth and establishment. But even if you don’t, it’ll chug right along, spreading itself like “the little engine that could.”

There are so many wonderful ways to use this decorative grass in your landscape. In my Japanese garden, I use this diminutive groundcover in patches where it’s intended to symbolize a green sward in a forest glade. I’ve also used it in the joints between stones in a native stone walkway, where its leaves are often trod on (and thankfully haven’t experienced any damage from foot traffic). But no matter where I use this delicate little perennial, it always stays with me throughout winter – offering my garden a boost of green color that gets me through the bleaker months until spring reappears!