There are more than 46 million acres of lawns grown in the United States that require millions of dollars and tons of fertilizers and pesticides to maintain. While this type of grass may be standard, there is another, more ecologically sustainable grass that is making great headways into American yards.
Ornamental grasses are low-maintenance plants that are easy to care for and provide winter interest in areas of the country that are used to just seeing brown lawns and white snow in winter. These plants are drought tolerant, have few pests and problems, and make for good wildlife habitat. While some ornamental grasses can be invasive with spreading roots or self-sow readily, there are many native ornamental grasses that are well behaved in a landscape.
Ornamental grasses are a wide group of plants. Some are native to the Midwest prairies, while others are exotic imports. Ornamental grasses are generally grouped into cool and warm-season grasses. Cool-season grasses start growing in early spring and flower from fall to winter. Warm-season grasses start growing in late spring, once temperatures warm, and flower and set seed in summer and fall. The hardiness of these grasses can vary, so always select grasses that can survive the coldest temps for your location.
Ornamental Grass can enhance a garden or backyard in an assortment of ways
While most people think of grass as their lawn, ornamental grasses fit in many places in the landscape. In a flowering perennial border, ornamental grasses can provide interesting leaf color and texture, plant height and interest late in the season. 'Karl Foerster' reed grass grows 5 feet tall with tan-colored flower spikes in fall that hold through winter. Japanese blood grass grows only 18 inches tall with red and green colored leaf blades. Porcupine grass has leaf blades with yellow and green banding on 6 foot tall plants. Fescue grass has a mounding habit with blue-green leaf blades. Some are less than 1 foot tall.
As you can see, some ornamental grasses can grow quite large. This makes them excellent privacy screen plants and good for making a seasonal hedge. Giant Miscanthus and Giant Reed grass can grow 10 to 15 feet tall making not only a visual block but a wind screen.
On the other extreme, some ornamental grasses are excellent low-growing, rock garden plants. Moor grass, blue oat grass and dwarf fountain grass stay below 2 feet tall while still providing interesting foliage and flower heads. Some of the sedges grow so low they make beautiful ground covers. Hakone grass features a floppy, mounding plant with yellow and green leaf blades. An edging of hakone grass around a flower garden is stunning.
'Shenandoah' Red Switchgrass is a favorite selection of native prairie grass with gorgeous, colorful leaves. New growth emerges green with red tips. Gradually the entire plant turns to a rich burgundy color that appears to be aflame when backlit by the sun. Airy blooms appear in midsummer, hazy clouds floating above the leaves. Its a real showstopper year-round, with seed heads providing an important food source for native wildlife during the winter. (Panicum virgatum)
'Pumila' Dwarf Pampas Grass makes a bold statement with massive ivory plumes towering over handsome arching foliage. Attractive feathery flowers emerge in late-summer and last for months. Like their larger counterpoints, the silky plumes are an excellent attraction in the landscape, and are beautiful for cutting or drying. Pampas Grass tolerates wind and moves gracefully in a breeze. A tough, fast-growing and drought-tolerant specimen, this variety is sterile and will not reseed. (Cortaderia selloana)
Pennsylvania Sedge provides lush texture for dry shade gardens. Fine low-growing foliage arches gently, giving the appearance of soft, rolling waves. Makes a lovely groundcover or lawn alternative that requires little to no mowing. Mass planting will create a cool, glossy green carpet that is tough and versatile. Semi-evergreen foliage is deer resistant and low maintenance. (Carex pennsylvanica)
'Foxtrot' Fountain Grass lives up to its namesake, dancing upon the gentlest of breezes to invigorate the garden. Everything about this plant moves, from the flowing foliage to the arching pink plumes. An early bloomer among grasses, 'Foxtrot' sends four-inch plumes skyward mid-summer through fall. The soft bottlebrush blooms are tinged pink to maroon and glisten in the sun. A long-time industry favorite for exceptional dependability, this is among the largest and strongest of fountain grasses. Fast growing, low maintenance, and will not reseed. (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
Ornamental grasses are drought tolerant, but some actually thrive near water gardens. Yellow sedge, Prairie cordgrass, and Umbrella sedge and grow well near a pond or wetland.
Ornamental grasses can even be grown in containers. Annual fountain grass has maroon-purple leaf blades on 3 foot tall plants. Purple muhly grass produces cloudy or wispy purple flower heads over the 2 foot tall foliage. Hare's Tail grass produces little white tufts on 2 foot tall plants.
When selecting any ornamental grass, you'll need to first find a grass that is hardy in your area and suits your landscape. Look for clumping versus spreading types and determine if you have the right location for that type of grass to grow and thrive. There's nothing worse than planting a large growing grass in a small space where it will be crowding other plants or blocking a window of walkway. Also, some ornamental grass, such as northern sea oats, self sow readily and can become weedy. You may need to harvest the flower heads before they set seed or just be diligent about weeding out seedlings each spring.
When selecting ornamental grasses, think about what season you need color or interest in your garden. If you're looking for interesting leaf textures and colors in summer, look for colorful leaves on grasses such as Japanese blood grass and Porcupine grass. If you’re more inclined to enjoy interesting grasses in fall and winter, look for showy flower heads such as those on Japanese silver grass and fountain grass.
Some grasses, such as switch grass and wavy hairgrass, seem to dance in the wind with their flower heads adding motion to the garden. Other grasses, such as oat grass, have inflorescence that actually make a soothing rustling sound in the breeze.
Many ornamental grasses produce flower heads that can be used as dried flowers indoors. These flower heads can be mixed and matched with other seasonal flowers. Being dried, they have a long vase life. As I write, I'm looking at the swag of northern sea oat grass I harvested from our garden a few years ago that is hanging in my office. It still looks attractive. Other ornamental grass heads are good companions for late summer and fall flowers from the garden such as zinnias, sedum, asters and goldenrod.
About the Author: Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden speaker, author, consultant, radio and TV show host. He delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. Visit his website, GardeningwithCharlie.com for how-to gardening information, and for more about Charlie.