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How to Care for Ornamental Grass

These types of grasses can add beauty and grace to your lawn or garden, but it is critical to know how to care for them. Here are some factors to consider when selecting ornamental grass.

A bench surrounded by ornamental grass Elke Borkowski/GAP Photos

Beautiful landscaping is a joy to behold. Unfortunately, the upkeep isn’t always easy. Unfortunately, a gorgeous, well-kept lawn and garden aren’t always easy to achieve. There are many things that can sabotage your efforts including pests that could destroy your garden, and grasses and plants could die if improperly planted. All in all, taking care of a lawn or garden can become a high-maintenance task and cost a lot in terms of money and time.

If you want an attractive yard minus the hassle, consider planting some ornamental grass. These grasses require very little maintenance and less watering than most plants. They also look gorgeous, blooming into various colors and textures and growing in clumps or mounds. Additionally, they prevent soil erosion and provide windbreaks on your property. This guide will introduce you to the most popular, low-maintenance varieties and how to take care of them so that they thrive with very little help.

What To Know About Buying Ornamental Grass

How your grasses look in full bloom is important to consider when choosing ornamental grass. However, here are some other essential factors to consider when purchasing ornamental grasses.

Height

Some ornamental grasses only grow a few inches, while others can extend up to 15 feet. Tall grasses can be advantageous if you are looking for extra privacy between you and your neighbor’s yard or a little more shade. Whatever your reason is for growing ornamental grass, make sure that you consider its potential height in the decision-making.

Cool or Warm Season

When selecting ornamental grass, it’s good to keep in mind the climate you live in. Cool-season grasses thrive in environments where temperatures are usually between 60 to 75 degrees. In comparison, warm-season grasses do well where it’s between 80 to 95 degrees. So if you live in the northern part of the U.S., select ornamental grasses that are categorized as cool-season grasses and vice versa if you live in the southern half of the U.S.

Hardiness Zone

Another factor to keep in mind when choosing ornamental grass is its hardiness zone. There are 13 hardiness zones in the U.S. which represent the temperature at which these grasses can grow. Zone 1 is a very cold region while Zone 13 is a very hot region. As with warm or cold season classification, hardiness zones help you to determine if the ornamental grass will grow well in your area.

Soil Type

One great thing about ornamental grasses is that they don’t have to rely on extremely fertile soil to grow. Most like to grow in slightly moist, well-drained soil. Some may even thrive in clay or rocky soil. When buying ornamental grass, the tag will let you know the type of soil for your choice of grass.

Types of Ornamental Grasses

If you want to learn all about ornamental grasses, the best way to get started is to become familiar with some of the most common ones which don’t require much upkeep. Below are some no-fuss options that range from a few inches to several feet.

Black Mondo

Ophiopogon planiscapus, known as Black Mondo, grows in a hardiness zone of five to ten. Black mondo grows in compact mounds and spreads about two feet. The foliage is a rich dark violet but grows blossoms that vary in color from lavender to pinkish-white. It is a perennial that thrives in medium-moist soil. It can grow in full sun or shade, and it is an evergreen.

  • Height: 6 to 12 inches
  • Color: Blackish-violet
  • Cool or Warm Season Grass: Warm

Blue Fescue

Blue Fescue (festuca glauca) iStock

For a grass that grows in a hardiness zone of four to eight, festuca glauca, more commonly known as blue fescue is the way to go. It forms in very tight small mounds and doesn’t spread quickly. The color of the grass changes from light blue-silver early in the season and turns to blue-green in the summer. In fall, it turns darker, mottled green. In mild climates, it remains evergreen but turns brown during harsh winters. Since it is very drought-resistant, it can thrive in areas with very little water, such as a rock garden. It is a perennial that thrives in the sun and is semi-evergreen.

  • Height: 6 to 12 inches
  • Color: Color variation from green to blue-green annually
  • Cool or Warm Season: Cool

Lilyturf

An ornamental grass that is at home in a hardiness zone of four to ten is liriope muscari, more commonly known as lilyturf. It grows in clumps and spreads wide quickly. While its color is mostly green, its flower is purple violet. It thrives in full sun or shade. It is a perennial that likes moist, well-drained soil. It can be evergreen.

  • Height: 6 to 12 inches
  • Color: Green
  • Cool or Warm Season: Warm

Japanese Forest Grass

Japanese Forest Grass (hakonechloa macra) iStock

Japanese Forest Grass is scientifically known as hakonechloa macra and grows in a hardiness zone of four to five. It grows in cascading clumps that spreads wide. Its color is primarily yellow-gold but if it is grown in the shade, it tends to be a lime green color. It thrives in moist, well-drained soil. It is semi-evergreen and a perennial. It will tolerate both full sun and full shade.

  • Height: 12 to 28 inches
  • Color: Yellow-gold
  • Cool or Warm Season: Cool

Purple Fountain

Pennisetum setaceum rubrum, also referred to as purple fountain, grows best in a hardiness zone of nine and ten. This ornamental grass tends to grow in clumps and spreads wide. Its plumes are burgundy red and arch outward from the clump. Purple fountain grass thrives in tropical areas and is drought-tolerant. It is perennial and evergreen. It needs about six hours of sun and can tolerate shade for about four hours.

  • Height: 3 to 6 feet
  • Color: Burgundy red
  • Cool or Warm Season Grass: Warm

Zebra

Zebra Grass (miscanthus sinensis) iStock

Miscanthus sinensis is a good choice for a hardiness zone of five to nine. This grass grows best in places that regularly get six to eight hours of sun. Zebra grass tends to grow in clumps and spreads pretty wide. The blades of arching grass are green with outer edges of yellow. This grass type flourishes in very moist soil but can withstand some levels of drought. It is perennial and deciduous.

  • Height: 5 to 8 feet
  • Color: Striped green and yellow
  • Cool or Warm Season Grass: Warm

Caring for Ornamental Grass

Although ornamental grasses eventually grow to become a plant that doesn’t require much water, they are very hydrophilic at first. So, when you plant them, you will need to water them every other day. After they have become established, water them twice a week. After a year, your ornamental grass will get along just fine on the moisture from rainfall. Though, if your area is experiencing minimal rain, it’s a good idea to water your ornamental grass every three weeks.

When it comes to fertilizers, ornamental grasses don’t need much. There are a few that won’t need fertilizers at all, such as fine and hard fescues or purple fountain grasses. You will only need to fertilize most other grasses in the spring with a slow-release fertilizer that includes rotted manure, mushroom compost, and leaf mold.

When to cut back ornamental grass

In late winter or early spring, it’s smart to take the time to cut back your ornamental grass. This means you will prune the brown parts of the plant that have grown throughout winter. Failing to do so will cause the new green growth to grow with the brown grass, which can eventually cause the plant to die. Cutting back the brown portions of the plant gets rid of the old and makes way for the new so that your grass can continue to grow and thrive another year.

After a few years, you may notice that your ornamental grass is getting too big for its location and starting to die near the center. This indicates that it is time to divide the grass. Like cutting back grass, it’s a good idea to do this in the late winter or early spring before the grass starts to grow. After cutting back the grass, take an ax or hacksaw and divide the plant into smaller sections. Carefully dig out one part and move it to a new location while keeping the other part in the exact location. This will allow the plant to have more room to grow for many years to come.

Protect Ornamental Grass

One of the reasons most people choose ornamental grasses is because they are naturally resistant to pests. Therefore, you won’t need to use pesticides to keep pests at bay.

However, there are a few pests that will wreak havoc on ornamental grass. It depends on what part of the country you reside in which pests will attack your grass. For instance, in Georgia, lace bugs love ornamental grasses. They chew through the leaves and drain the chlorophyll from them, eventually destroying the plant’s health. A few other insects that love ornamental grass are aphids and mites. Aphids suck the sap out of these plants, while mites suck the juice out of the blades. Soapy insecticides can rid the plant of pests. Just be sure to select ones that don’t kill beneficial bugs.

Another threat to your ornamental grasses is disease. Two diseases common with ornamental grass are powdery mildew and rust. Powdery mildew looks like a coating of dust on your plants and can cause them to start thinning. Like rust formed on iron, rust on ornamental grass has a reddish color. Grass affected by rust will turn wilt and turn brown.

Keeping ornamental grass healthy as possible will prevent conditions in which pests and diseases grow. However, if your plants become infested, fungicides and pesticides can keep them at bay. When choosing sprays, select ones that don’t kill beneficial bugs.

Common Questions About Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses are easy plants to grow and maintain in your yard or garden. But here are answers to common questions you may have about ornamental grasses.

Are perennials and ornamental grass the same?

Perennials are a type of ornamental grass. Another type of ornamental grass is annual. Perennials live for two or more years, while annuals live only one year, as the name implies.

Does ornamental grass require a lot of maintenance?

Ornamental grass is drought-resistant, so you don’t have to water it much, and most pests don’t find it appetizing. You only have to cut them back occasionally to eliminate the brown grass and keep it from dying. Additionally, you will have to divide it every few years.

What’s the best soil for planting ornamental grass?

Ornamental grass thrives in slightly moist, well-drained soil, but some species thrive in clay or very damp conditions. There are even some that can thrive in arid conditions. The species you choose should include details of how to plant and care for it.