If you want to go beyond a uniform green lawn and add some pizzazz to your yard, check out ornamental grasses, the eye-catching, more natural-looking cousins of turf grass. Ornamental grasses come in shades of blue, red and green, and they range in height from less than 12 inches to more than 10 feet. They’re nearly insect- and disease-free, and they tolerate a wide range of soil and temperature conditions. To top it off, they need little care to look great — no weekly mowing here.
In addition, ornamental grasses do more than just lie there waiting for a croquet game to start. Use them to fill in a flower bed or screen an ugly view. You can even make them the focal point of your yard. This versatility is a key reason that ornamental grasses are booming in popularity.
Selecting an ornamental grass for your yard might be the toughest part of the whole process. The plants that we show here represent only a small number of the grasses and grasslike plants readily available throughout the country. Talk with your local extension service and nursery staff for guidance. Another good resource is The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, an up-to-date, authoritative reference by Rick Darke.
Like any plant, the ornamental grasses you select must be suited to your climate and growing conditions. Familiarize yourself with the growth cycle of the plants so that you can coordinate them with neighboring plants.
Most ornamental grasses are warm-season types, which flourish in summer heat, flower in summer and fall, and begin to go dormant with winter. Many offer outstanding fall color in the North, and their winter hues of chestnut, tan and russet remain handsome throughout the cold months.
Cool-season types grow in the cool, moist weather of spring (or winter in mild-winter climates). They flower from late winter to early summer, and then grow very slowly, if at all, in summer. Their growth resumes once fall arrives. These grasses offer early-spring appeal and, in mild climates, their foliage is evergreen over the winter season. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) and feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora stricta) are examples of very useful cool-season grasses.
Color, Shape, and Size
Choose a grass the right size and shape for your landscape. Some ornamental grasses get extremely tall. For example, towering ravenna grass (Saccharum ravennae), with 14-foot-high flower spikes, makes a striking accent. But not if it’s planted at the front of a flower bed. Better choices for this situation are low-growing grasses, such as blue fescue (Festuca glauca) for sunny borders or hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra) for shady spots.
Grasses with variegated leaves (colored patches, stripes or spots) lend a unique pattern and texture to the landscape. In recent years, ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’), with fine, white-edged leaves, has taken the spotlight. Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’), with horizontal yellow bands across its green leaves, remains a tried-and-true choice.
For vibrant color, you can’t beat Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’). Its leaves emerge green with dark-red tips in spring. By early summer they’re bright red, and in fall they intensify to a deep burgundy.
Most grasses don’t spread rampantly once planted. But the ones that spread rapidly by runners, like Silver banner grass (Miscanthus sacchariflorus) and ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Picta’), can be very difficult to confine once established. These grasses are useful for covering a large area or preventing soil erosion, but use them with caution.
Grasses that self-seed prolifically are potentially invasive as well. And a grass that’s not invasive in one climate can get out of hand in another. If in doubt, consult your local extension service or chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
With the recent surge in popularity of ornamental grasses, nurseries and garden centers nationwide are offering an ever-expanding selection. A nursery that has a display garden lets you see how plants mature and change through the seasons. This is especially important with grasses because their often bedraggled appearance in nursery containers doesn’t reflect their striking beauty once planted.
Grasses are typically sold in 1-, 2- and 5-gallon containers. Though you might consider a single plant expensive — $9 to $15 for one in a 2-gallon container — perennial grasses are a good value. They live for years, sometimes decades; they also fill out quickly, reaching maturity in one or two years.
If you can’t find certain grasses locally, check the catalogs listed in our Where to Find It guide. Mail-order companies offer the widest selection; plants usually come bare-root.
To add to your shopping challenge, grasses are known by a variety of botanical and common names. Darke’s book can help with alternate names that you might encounter in catalogs and at the nursery.
Planting and Care
If you live in a mild climate, plant grasses in the spring or fall. If you live in a cold climate — where temperatures drop to -20°F or lower — plant in spring. Here are some planting guidelines:
- Remove sod and weed grasses, such as quack grass and Bermuda grass, from the planting area. If these grasses mingle with your ornamental grasses you’ll face an ongoing battle to fend them off.
- Set plants in the ground the same distance apart as their height at maturity. So, if a grass grows to 5 feet tall, plant it 5 feet from its neighbor, measuring from the center of one plant to the center of the next.
- If you’ve chosen grasses adapted to your soil conditions you’ll seldom need to add fertilizer or other amendments. In fact, too much fertilizer encourages weak and rampant growth and causes plants to flop over.
- Plant each grass at the same depth or slightly higher than it grew in the container. If planted too deep, water gets trapped around the plant crown, causing it to rot.
- After planting, water thoroughly. Then, apply organic mulch, such as shredded bark or shredded leaves, over the soil surface between plants, keeping it away from the crown of the plant. Continue to
- water regularly through the first growing season.
Once established, most grasses need little attention, other than a trim in late winter or early spring. Cut grasses back to within 4 to 6 inches of the ground with pruning shears, electric hedge shears, or a power trimmer with a metal blade. The stubble left after trimming helps protect the crown and emerging new growth from inclement weather.
As plants age, they might die out in the center. When this happens, divide the grasses. In early spring, dig up the entire plant and slice it into smaller pieces using either a sharp knife or a spade. Then replant the healthy pieces. Dividing large clumping grasses is a big job demanding a lot more muscle power and an ax or hacksaw for cutting the plants into smaller sections. Before digging and dividing tall grasses, cut back the foliage by about a third. Be sure to wear gloves and safety glasses to protect yourself from sharp grass blades.
Once you’ve completed these spring chores, it’s time to enjoy the delightful sounds and swaying movements of the grasses as the wind passes through them, their feathery flowers and colorful seed heads as the seasons progress. No turf grass can offer all this.
Grasses for Any Situation
FOR OUTSTANDING FALL COLOR
These grasses turn attractive colors in autumn, providing an additional season of interest (the fall leaf color follows the botanical name):
Broom-sedge (Andropogon virginicus, orange),
Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron,’ wine-red),
Flame Grass (Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens,’ orange-red),
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum, golden-yellow),
Red Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Hanse Herms,’ burgundy),
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans, yellow-orange),
Variegated prairie cord grass (Spartina pectinata ‘Aureomarginata,’ yellow),
Japanese Themeda (Themeda japonica, red-orange)
FOR A WET SITE
These grasses will grow in wet or poorly drained soils:
Sweet flag (Acorus calamus),
Japanese Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus),
Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora),
Rushes (Juncus, all species),
Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea),
‘Woods Dwarf’ dwarf ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Woods Dwarf’),
Feesey’s Form Ribbon Grass (Phalaris anundinacea ‘Feesey’s Form’),
Variegated prairie cord grass (Spartina pectinata ‘Aureomarginata’)
These grasses provide good height, dense foliage and fast growth, making them excellent choices for screens:
Karl Foerster’s Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’),
Compact pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’),
Ravenna Grass (Saccharum ravannae),
‘Cabaret’ Miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis condensatus ‘Cabaret’),
‘Morning Light’ Miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’),
Silver Feather Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’)
FOR A DRY SITE
Once established, these grasses tolerate heat and drought:
Broom-sedge (Andropogon virginicus),
Side-oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula),
Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis),
Atlas Fescue (Festuca mairei),
June Grass (Koeleria macrantha),
Blue Hair Grass (Koeleria glauca),
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum),
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans),
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
FOR LIGHT SHADE
While most grasses prefer full sun, these either tolerate or prefer light shade:
Golden Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis ‘Variegatus’),
Sedges (most Carex species),
Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia caespitosa),
Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa macra),
Bottle-brush Grass (Hystrix patula),
Variegated Moor Grass (Molina caerulea ‘Variegata’),
Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea),
Autumn Moor Grass (Sesleria autumnalis)
Reference books on ornamental grasses :
The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses
by Rick Darke
Portland, OR, 1999
Ornamental Grasses for Cold Climates
by M. Hockenberry Meyer, D.B. White and H. Pellett
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, MN, 1995
Step-by-Step Ornamental Grasses
by Peter Loewer
Better Homes and Gardens Books
Des Moines, IA, 1995
Taylor’s Guide to Ornamental Grasses
Edited by Roger Holmes
Houghton Mifflin Co.
New York, 1997
Mail-order sources for ornamental grasses:
Kurt Bluemel, Inc.
2740 Greene Ln.
Baldwin, MD 21013
7211 Middle Ridge Rd.
Madison, OH 44057
Carol Gardens, Inc
444 E. Main St.
Westminster, MD 21157
257 E. Franklin Ave.
Pomona, CA 91766
Limerock Ornamental Grasses
70 Saw Mill Rd.
Port Matilda, PA 16870
814-692-2272 (catalog $4)
Prairie Ridge Nursery
9738 Overland Rd.
Mount Horeb, WI 53572
Andre Viette Farm & Nursery
Fishersville, VA 22939