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A natural meadow planting featuring native perennials and ornamental grasses

How To Choose Ornamental Grass

Every garden can be enhanced by an ornamental grass. Large or small, a well-chosen grass brings rich texture, contrast and movement to a space and can provide those same elements throughout the four seasons. Plants can be tall and upright, or elegant and arching. Grow large varieties to add privacy to your yard, or low varieties for a no-mow lawn.

Read on to find the right grass for your garden!

Types of Ornamental Grass

The term Ornamental Grass includes a wide number of species to choose from. Taking a few moments to ensure that the grass you love is a good fit for both your space and your growing conditions. As size is often a first consideration for choosing plants, we've grouped our main ornamental grasses by size. 

Tall Ornamental Grasses

Correctly placed, a tall ornamental grass makes an elegant statement in any setting. Tall grasses can create privacy and a sense of enclosure in a larger space. It is imperative that you ensure you have adequate room for its mature size. Many large grasses not only grow up, but their clump size increases in circumference. Paying attention to the final size estimations and giving the plant space to mature means that you won't have to move the large plant in the future, and can enjoy your grass for years to come.

Here are some favorite tall ornamental grasses: 

Pampas Grass

Pampas Grasses
(Cortederia spp. and Saccharum spp.)

Pampas grasses are tall, warm-season grasses well known for large white plumes held above coarse, blue-grey foliage. They thrive in tough spots. Dwarf varieties are 2-3 feet smaller than the species, but still quite tall. They make a fabulous statement, but the species can be invasive in some areas. Sun-loving. 

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Maiden Grass

Maiden Grasses
(Miscanthus spp.)

Maiden grasses are one of the most versatile and well-used of ornamental grasses as there are so many colors and sizes from which to choose. Vase-shaped and tightly clumping, flowers are notoriously beautiful in autumn, especially when backlit. Can be invasive in some areas and wider-leaved cultivars may need staking. Sun and part-shade.

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Feather Reed Grass

Feather Reed Grass
(Calamagrostis spp.)


A favorite of landscapers, feather reed grasses can add a sharp, vertical accent, or a wider, softer one, depending upon the species. Moisture-retentive soil is best for this grass, but it can cope with drier soils once establish. Pair with lower growing perennials for an architectural look. Seed heads deliver added beauty late in the season. Sun-loving.

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Medium Ornamental Grasses

Medium-sized ornamental grasses are the most versatile in garden and landscape design. They can create layers of texture and movement without sacrificing too much space or blocking other important views that might be obstructed by larger grasses. They rarely need staking, and can provide a contrasting background to other perennials, or simply stand on their own as a focal point. They are particularly striking as a showcase for the natural shape and color of the grasses. They’re also extremely useful in container plantings.

Here are some favorite medium-sized grasses:

Northwind Switchgrass

(Panicum spp.)

Switchgrasses are native, clump-forming grasses with a strongly upright habit. They form light, airy panicles of silvery-red bloom in late summer and adapt well to poor soil once established. Sometimes called 'Bunchgrass,' Switchgrasses are an excellent choice for restoring prairie meadows and for combining with wildflowers. Full Sun.

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Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem Grasses
(Schizachyrium spp.)

Very recognizable in fields and meadows, clumps of Little Bluestem begin as blue-green grasses and end the season in deep bronze and chestnut hues. This native prairie plant, also known as Beardgrass, is a rampant self-seeder that will naturalize beautifully over time. Little Bluestem can be used to form large colonies. Full Sun.

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Fountain Grass

Fountain Grass
(Pennisetum spp.)

Fountain grasses have long been considered the gold standard for adding soft, colorful interest to ornamental containers and beds. Large, fluffy seed heads in varying shades of soft pink and taupe add to the display as summer draws on. Some species in this genus are annual in colder climates, but many are hardy as far as Zone 6. Full Sun to Part-Shade.

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Small Ornamental Grasses

Whether edging a pathway, filling a container, or providing texture for the front of the border, small ornamental grasses are fun to use and easy to design with. From lush variegated sedges to bushy fescues, they provide an important grassy texture in your garden without making you commit to larger specimens. There is much variability in the cultivation of small grasses – many of them thrive in shady moist spots, while others are happiest in the sun. For a gardener who has not dabbled in ornamental grasses, they’re a great group with which to get started.

Here are some favorite small-in-stature grasses for the garden:


Sedge Grass
(Carex spp.)

Sedges bring incredible color and texture to the moist, shady garden and are quite low-growing. Use them in so many ways – from 'underplanting' larger shrubs and trees to edging pathways or providing a bright, evergreen spark in containers. Part-sun to shade.

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Elijah Blue Grass

Fescue Grass
(Festuca spp.)

Ornamental fescues are silvery blue in color and grow into soft spiky clumps that can be planted in patterns for great effect. They are also terrific container grasses and particularly complement succulent troughs. Tawny flowers contrast beautifully with the foliage in mid-spring. Fescues can also be used to naturalize quickly and are a great choice for installing in swaths. Sun to part shade.

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The Best Ornamental Grasses For Any Purpose

Grasses fulfill many design roles in the garden – providing privacy, pattern, and strong architectural elements. But they can also meet functional needs by creating habitat for wildlife or maintaining effective erosion control along a steep bank. Knowing what you want from a grass can help you narrow down your choices and decide if the way a particular grass spreads or grows will eventually become a problem for your landscape.

Best Ornamental Grasses for Shade

The best ornamental grasses for shade are sedges. Taller grasses are rarely vigorous in shade conditions and tend to reach toward sunlight and eventually flop – although you can certainly experiment with varying levels of sun with maiden and fountain grasses.

Liriope and Mondo grass, while not technically grasses, are terrific in shade and certainly give a grass-like effect to the landscape; and blue fescues are often happy in a part shade position, particularly with moist soil.

Best Ornamental Grasses for Moist Areas

In sunny spots, maidenfeather reed and fountain grasses relish a consistently moist, but not boggy soil, but can grow fat on it, so watch out! In the shade, which is sometimes moist, sedges, are great lovers of constant moisture. 

Best Ornamental Grasses for Privacy

Large grasses such as maiden and pampas cultivars can enclose a space and create a sense of serenity and privacy, but often they are planted too close together or their eventual width is not taken into consideration. Don’t underestimate the use of slightly smaller medium grasses such as switchgrass to give you the same effect – particularly if the area is a seating area and views at eye-level will still be blocked.

Best Ornamental Grasses for Small Gardens

If you have a small garden, it is vital that you carefully research the grass you wish to grow and assume that the tall end of its height range is the eventual height you will end up with in your landscape. Clump-forming grasses are usually your best bet, such as fountain grasses or fescues. Small gardens with a bit of shade have even more choices with sedges too. 

Also, don’t forget to consider the possibility of showcasing a colorful medium-sized clumping grass as a specimen, such as 'Morning Light' maiden grass or 'Karley Rose' fountain grass. Sometimes a bold planting in a small space can really attract the eye and give a professional touch to your design.

Path through perennial beds in summer. Pink and white phlox on the left, Karley Rose fountain grass along the right

Best Ornamental Grasses for Pathways or Hedging

Edging with grasses is a wonderful way of bringing attention to a specific path in your garden or creating a formal touch – but it’s important to use grasses that are clump forming and well-behaved when it comes to self-seeding. Low to medium mounds of fountain grass can create just the look you want throughout all four seasons; but if you’re interested in larger grasses to create a tunnel affect, make sure you choose those that are strongly vertical and that won’t grow too far into the path itself (such as feather reed grasses or switchgrasses).


Best Ornamental Grasses For Color

Many grasses bring late-season color to the garden as they age, such as big and little bluestems, and switchgrasses, but others – such as many of the fescues, and sedges, start the season with silver, chartreuse, cream, gold, yellows, and all shades in-between. Don’t forget about the color of flowering stems and seed heads – they often provide great contrast to the foliage (as with blue fescues), creating a stunning specimen in the landscape.

Best Ornamental Grasses for Containers

Mounding cultivars of medium and small grasses lend themselves beautifully to containers. They create a soft, portable feature that can be left on its own as a specimen, or if smaller, paired with other perennials to create texture and movement in a container.

Fountain grasses are one of the most popular container plants, but the highly colorful and evergreen nature of many of the sedges is contributing to their growing popularity. Small to medium maiden grasses that don’t require staking are also a good choice planted on their own – particularly if you are trying to add privacy to a deck or patio.

Best Ornamental Grasses for Four-Season Interest

When you plant anything in your garden, thinking about the way it will look during the off-season is just as important as thinking about how it looks during the growing season – and this consideration is precisely why many of the ornamental grasses shine. From the tawny colors of maiden grasses topped with frothy plumes to the evergreen golds, greens, and silvers of bright sedges and liriopes, there are looks for every taste.

Don’t forget to consider the architectural impact of drying grass clumps as well. Switchgrasses and big and little bluestems remain upright in the landscape, as do some species of feather reed grass. When contrasted with coniferous and broadleaf evergreens, these grasses can help you get well on your way toward a four-season garden.

Best Ornamental Grasses for Wildlife Habitat

Giving wildlife a place to shelter during the seasons is just as important as providing a food source, and many of our native warm season grasses make a terrific habitat for birds and insects. Big bluestem and little bluestemswitchgrasses, and Indiangrass grow quickly and densely and are erect throughout the winter months. Planting them with various perennial plants such as coneflower, black-eyed Susan, or butterfly weed ensures that there’s not just a home available, but a meal as well.

Best Ornamental Grasses for Meadowscaping  & Mass Planting

Ornamental Grasses are the ideal addition to naturalistic plantings. Planted in large swathes, these grasses deliver color, texture, and movement from spring through fall, and can fill your landscape with texture over the winter as well. Grasses with upright habits, such as Big Bluestems and Little Bluestems are a popular choice for clumping grasses in a meadow, while Indiangrasslovegrass, and wild rye can provide more of a uniform background to other flowering perennials.

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