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.
'Hameln' Fountain Grass is a smaller variety with three distinctive seasons of stunning displays in full sun or part shade gardens. First, fine-textured green grass blades up to 3 feet tall are tipped with soft, wheat-shaped seed heads. Foliage turns rust gold in autumn, and finally, pale blonde in winter. 'Hameln' is a favorite for birds and resists hungry deer. A great match for late-season perennials and colorful shrubs in the mixed border, as well as cut or dried flower arrangements. (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
'Karley Rose' is the most famous Fountain Grass, known for its highly decorative rose-purple plumes that catch sunlight like no other. Excellent in containers and when planted en masse, 'Karley Rose' is a cold-hardy variety that holds its sprays of blooms throughout the season. Tolerant of both drought and partial shade, this fountain grass delivers plenty of winter interest and has no major pest or disease issues. PP#12909 (Pennisetum orientale)
'Pink Cloud' Muhly Grass sends billows of airy pink flower panicles dancing in the wind for a stunning autumn display. The graceful, arching foliage is equally magnificent, providing movement and structure to mixed borders. This native plant is not just beautiful its easy to grow, drought resistant, and deer resistant, too. Tuck cuttings of 'Pink Cloud' Muhly Grass into flower arrangements for lavish texture. Simply breathtaking when planted in flowing drifts and sparkling in the afternoon sun. (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
'Big Blue' Liriope is a low-maintenance groundcover for the most challenging sites. Spikes of blue-violet blooms complement deep green arching foliage in late summer, and almost black berries in fall. Plants tolerate a range of conditions from full sun to shade, clay to sandy soils, and wet or dry sites. Liriope provides excellent erosion control, and is often used as a lawn alternative or groundcover. Evergreen foliage in warm southern climates. Plants are rabbit and deer-proof, making 'Big Blue' an easy choice for the no-fuss gardener. (Liriope muscari)
Ornamental Grasses: Solution for "problem areas"
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.