Native grasses make up the biggest plant component of true prairies. Cool-season grasses grow in spring and fall, while warm-season grasses wait for summer's heat before they begin growing. Grasses unfailingly appreciate sun, but some tolerate shade. These garden backbones are tough, and the native ones offer shelter to pollinators, but for a tidier look, cut them back in late winter. Here, 10 grasses that make great neighbors in the prairie- or meadow-style garden.
Feather Reed Grass
(Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster')
A classic that should be standard in gardens, this cool-season grass wakes up early in spring and flowers with pink patterned plumes in early summer; those plumes age to a wheat color that lasts through fall into winter, barring heavy snow. Upright 'Karl Foerster' blooms with pinkish-purple flowers. It grows up to 5 feet high and 30 inches wide in Zones 5 to 9.
(Andropogon gerardii 'Red October')
The major grass of the Midwest prairie, big bluestem has a dramatic presence. A warm-season grass, its tall stems of three-fingered flowers emerge to float above foliage late in the growing season. To go along with its classically upright form, the cultivar 'Red October' has scarlet foliage in fall after frost. It grows up to 6 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 4 to 9.
(Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus')
Widely planted, warm-season miscanthus grasses make fantastic columnar accents in any landscape, including a meadow- or prairie-style garden. Zebra grass is an older cultivar that features horizontal bands of gold across its leaves and contrasting pink flowers in fall. It grows up to 8 feet high and 6 feet wide in Zones 5 to 9.
Purple Moor Grass
(Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea 'Sky Racer')
If it's living kinetic sculpture you're looking for in your garden, purple moor grass is for you. The cool-season grass emerges in early spring but doesn't put on a show until midsummer, when tall rays of translucent flowers appear, shimmering in the slightest breeze. This upright grass also works well in damp soil, unlike many grasses, which can flop. Grows up to 8 feet high and 4 feet wide in Zones 5 to 8.
(Schizachyrium scoparium 'Standing Ovation')
A mounding grass to fill in the middle ground, little bluestem's fine, steely foliage provides a one-two punch of color and texture. Though the species can be floppy in gardens, the cultivar 'Standing Ovation' is bred to stand tall in full sun with sandy soil. Grows up to 4 feet high and 18 inches wide in Zones 3 to 8.
Pink Hair Grass
Wispy in all ways, pink hair grass is understated in leaf but spectacular in bloom. Its velvety magenta plumes of flower appear late in the summer, approaching fall. These turn to tan and can be left through winter as an accent on this warm-season mounding grass. Grows up to 3 feet high and wide in Zones 5 to 9.
Korean Feather Grass
A warm-season grass that wakes up early in the growing season, Korean feather grass is notable in the prairie plant palette in that it thrives even in part shade. The flowers of this mounding grass appear over a long period, from mid- to late summer; they start out white, then age to pink and finally to the color of wheat, attractive even in winter. Grows up to 4 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 4 to 9.
(Carex muskingumensis 'Oehme')
A tough Midwestern native, palm sedge grows well in sun to part shade and sports leaves like streamers in whorls around a central stem. A low grower that proves wonderful things can come in small packages, this plant is actually a sedge, visually very similar to grasses. 'Oehme' adds gold-edged foliage to the mix. Grows up to 2 feet high and wide in Zones 4 to 8.
(Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln')
'Hameln' fountain grass is a versatile, warm-season groundcover that's a good fit in more naturalistic landscapes. Its oaten cottontails of bloom appear in late summer and act as an excellent foil for fall foliage. Grows up to 30 inches high and wide in Zones 5 to 9.
(Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau')
A native that deserves much wider use, cool-season hair grass greets spring with leafy green. In July, its low-growing foliage nearly disappears in a translucent veil of apple-green flowers that age to gold. 'Goldtau' thrives even in light shade. Grows up to 2 feet high and 30 inches wide in Zones 4 to 9.