How to Choose the Best Ornamental Grasses
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. Grasses are the 'next step' for the gardener seeking a professional touch – but thankfully you don't need to be a professional to grow them!
What do we mean by 'ornamental grass?'
As gardeners, we tend to think of anything with long, narrow foliage as a grass and expect that they must all grow in similar ways, but some of our best known 'grasses' are merely grass-like perennials. True ornamental grasses actually include genera within four main families – true grasses, sedges, rushes and reeds – and they have very different cultivation requirements and spread in very different ways, giving each a capacity to solve garden problems.
Where Northwind Switchgrass might thrive in the moist shade, Karl Foerster is tolerant of salt, humidity, and wind. Where 'Hameln' fountain grass will remain in well-behaved clumps along a pathway, 'Northern' Sea Oats will naturalize and spread, creating a more wild and naturalistic look.
Which is the best ornamental grass for you?
With so many genera and 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 lifestyle can save you time and energy in the long run. As size is most often a first consideration for gardeners, let's start by looking there first, grouping some of these different species into basic groups according to the tallest possible height they can attain:
Tall Ornamental Grasses for the Garden (6-10')
Correctly placed, a tall ornamental grass makes an elegant statement and can create privacy and a sense of enclosure in a larger space. However, it is imperative that you ensure you have adequate room for its final size. Many large grasses not only grow up, but their clump size increases in circumference and a few might need judicious staking – especially in a windy area. Paying attention to the final size estimations and adjusting placement accordingly means that you won't be faced with a difficult move in the future and can just enjoy your grass for years to come.
Here are some favorite tall cultivars of different species to browse:
Pampas Grasses (Cortederia spp.)
Pampas grasses are tall, warm climate 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.
(Tall) 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.
Ravenna grass (Saccharum spp.)
Ravenna grass, (often referred to as 'Pampas grass' even though it's technically a different variety) is one of the tallest ornamental grasses – the plumes can sometimes best ten feet in the garden. However, the blue-green, strappy foliage is somewhat shorter, so it can be used as a strong vertical accent without necessarily obstructing other views. This grass can be invasive, so keep monitor any attempts to spread. Sun-loving.
Medium Ornamental Grasses for the Garden (4-5')
Medium sized ornamental grasses are the most versatile sized grasses in the garden. They allow the gardener to 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 surrounded by other lower growing plants. Grown this way, or as a small group of specimens, they are particularly striking, for the natural shape and color can be showcased on a very accessible level. They’re also extremely useful in containers.
Here are some favorite medium sized grasses to consider for your garden:
Switchgrasses (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. Sun-loving.
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. Sun-loving.
(Small) Fountain grasses (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. Sun to part-shade.
Feather reed grasses (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.
(Medium) Maiden grasses (Miscanthus)
Medium cultivars of the vase-shaped maiden grasses are well behaved and extremely versatile. Leaves are most often very narrow and come in a variety of colors from variegated, to gold banded, to almost pure cream. Flowers are produced in mid- to late-summer and can be held throughout winter. Sun to part-shade.
Blue oat grasses (Helictotrichon spp.)
A perfect addition to the silver garden, blue oat grasses are particularly stunning when tawny flower stems are held above blue-gray leaves in mid-summer. Prefers sunny rich soils, but tolerant of many soil conditions as long as they are well-drained. Arching, evergreen leaf blades hold their shape through winter. Sun-loving.
Small ornamental grasses for the garden (1-3')
Whether edging a pathway, filling a container or providing yet another 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 gray 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.
Border refers to a long and deep garden bed that usually borders a wide grass or gravel pathway.
Here are some favorite small-in-stature grasses for the garden:
Liriope (Liriope spp.)
A popular grass-like groundcover with homeowners, liriope species come in both clump forming and spreading forms and are also available in golden, chartreuse and silver cultivars. A tough plant for tough places in both sun and shade, clumping forms also make a great edging for pathways. Sun to shade.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum spp.)
A group of native prairie grasses, Indiangrasses sport feathery seed heads above foliage that turns deep chestnut in the late summer. These are great grasses for open sunny meadows as seed heads are wildlife favorites.
Sedge grasses (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.
Underplanting refers to the practice of planting at the feet of larger shrubs or trees.
Blue grama grasses (Bouteloua spp.)
Light and airy, blue grama grasses hold their fascinating, comb like seed heads above blue green foliage. Native to much of North America, new cultivars have accentuated the light color of those seed heads, providing excellent contrast in this drought tolerant grass. Well-known heat lovers, Blue Gramas are also quite cold hardy and will perform beautifully in northern locales and high elevations. Sun-loving.
Mondo grasses (Ophiopogon spp.)
A hardy low-growing favorite for shade or part shade, mondo grasses are actually a grass-like perennial and have been used for centuries in Japanese gardens as groundcovers and textural accents. They create slow-growing tufted mounds of narrow strappy foliage that with enough sun will be topped with blue-black berries. Black-foliaged cultivars are a real talking point in any garden. Shade to part shade.
Fescues (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 colored flowers contrast beautifully with the foliage in mid-spring. Fescues can also be used to naturalize bare soils quickly and are a great choice for installing in swaths on unplanted land. Sun to part shade.
(Small) Fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.)
Smaller varieties of fountain grasses are perfect grasses for edging pathways or using in containers. Well behaved, mounding foliage is topped by buff colored, foxtail-like seed heads in late summer. As an added bonus, the plants will hold their shape and seed heads throughout the winter months. Sun to part shade.
Japanese forest grasses (Hakonechloa spp.)
Over time, Japanese forest grass will create waterfalls of low, mounding color in the shady to part sun garden and is best planted in groups of three or more. A moisture lover, it takes a little while to get going, then takes off. A rainbow of colors is available, bringing light to your shadier spaces. Shade to part sun.
Lovegrass (Eragrostis spp.)
A soft, low, green grass that is a favorite for stabilizing banks or open areas. Grows rapidly and spreads via seeds that are held high above 12" foliage tufts. Foliage tends to bend over in weeping species, creating soft, tufted mounds that appear almost windblown and give it its common name. Sun-loving.
What Can Ornamental Grasses Do For You?
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 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 and the small-garden gardener with a bit of shade has even more choices with Japanese forest grasses, sedges and mondo grasses!
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.
Best Ornamental Grasses for Shade
The best ornamental grasses for shade are often the lowest growing such as sedges and Japanese forest grasses. 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 in 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.
The great news is that many of these grasses and grass-like perennials are highly colorful and will add great contrast to your shady spaces, even if they are not adding much in the way of height.
Best Ornamental Grasses for Moist Areas
In sunny spots, maiden, feather 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 usually (but not always) moist, sedges, liriope and Japanese forest grasses are great lovers of constant moisture. In the case of Japanese forest grass however, boggy soil can mean root rot – plant that one in well-draining soil for best results.
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, sedges, Japanese forest grasses, maiden grasses and liriopes – 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 bluestem, switchgrasses 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 Meadows
The definition of 'ornamental' grass becomes hazy when creating a meadow. Planted in large swathes, these grasses will not necessarily stand alone as specimens, yet are still relied upon for color, texture and height. Big bluestems and little bluestems are a popular choice for clumping grasses in a meadow, while Indiangrass, lovegrass and wild rye can provide more of a uniform background to other flowering perennials.
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‘Cloud Nine’ Tall Switchgrass, the tallest switchgrass cultivar available, is an easy-to-grow, award-winning native cultivar. Upright, blue-green foliage is topped with a...Learn MoreCloud Nine Switchgrass Cloud Nine Switchgrass Panicum virgatum Cloud NineAs low as $15.99 Sale $11.99Per Plant - 3" Pot‘Cloud Nine’ Tall Switchgrass, the tallest switchgrass cultivar available, is an easy-to-grow, award-winning native cultivar. Upright, blue-green foliage is topped with a cloud of airy seed panicles in mid-to-late-summer. Foliage and seeds turn a lovely golden hue in autumn, and ‘Cloud Nine’ stands tall through the winter months, providing shelter and food for songbirds. Highly adaptable, it tolerates a wide range of soil conditions. Make a statement in your garden and grow a habitat-friendly garden! (Panicum virgatum)
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