All About Ornamental Grasses

Learn how ornamental grasses can work wonders in your yard.

It’s easy to be attracted to ornamental grasses for their elegant leaves, airy seedheads and striking shapes. They rustle and sway beautifully in the breeze and catch the gorgeous, late-day light of spring, summer and fall.

And once you discover how versatile they are in the landscape—from solving design challenges to enhancing beds, borders and other plantings—you’ll find them completely indispensible!

Need more convincing? Consider that grasses are available in a wide range of sizes, they’re typically less expensive than shrubs, they fi ll in faster than shrubs and they take up less space than hedge plants. And many do well in partial shade and are drought tolerant. Here’s how to put them to use this spring.

Provide some privacy

Tall, upright grasses are terrific for giving a sense of enclosure to a pathway, pool, play area, patio, deck or other outdoor area. Besides providing visual screening for privacy, their rustling leaves can help to block some background noise. Plant them close together (12 to 18 inches apart), and they’ll quickly grow to form a solid barrier along a property boundary, street or driveway, making it hard for passers-by to peek in and blocking unwanted views from inside.

Grasses aren’t present year-round, of course, because you’ll need to cut down the dead tops by late winter or early spring, but they typically shoot upward quickly in midsummer and continue to provide screening through fall and well into winter.

Some superb screening grasses include ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora, Zones 4 to 9), ‘Northwind’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum, Zones 4 to 9) and ‘Gracillimus’ or ‘Morning Light’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis, Zones 5 to 9).

Make a statement

Sometimes a single plant may be all you need to add pizzazz to your yard. One clump of a large, dramatic grass, such as the showy, striped Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cosmopolitan’, Zones 5 to 9), makes a dramatic landscape feature that can take the place of a shrub or structure. It draws attention to any area you might want to highlight.

Planted in pairs, ornamental grasses are excellent for accenting a door, gate or other entrance, or for flanking the start of a path or a set of steps. Medium-sized, mounding grasses, such as hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, Zones 5 to 9) and blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens, Zones 4 to 8), tend to be better choices than tall grasses for this trick because they’ll be less likely to block the way as the season progresses.

Cover the ground

Turf grasses are good at filling space, but they need regular mowing to keep them from looking wild and weedy. Take advantage of the tenacity of ornamental grasses—while saving yourself hours of maintenance time—by replacing unneeded or hard-to-reach parts of your lawn with low-growing to medium-sized varieties.

Use sun-loving ornamentals, such as ‘Piglet’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides, Zones 5 to 9), in masses to fill open areas. Or cover the ground around the base of trees and shrubs with shaggy, shade-tolerant types, such as Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica, Zones 3 to 8).

Ornamental grasses are outstanding alternatives to turf on sloping sites, holding the soil without you having to haul a mower up and down the incline once a week. Those with arching habits, such as shade-tolerant Evergold sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’, Zones 6 to 9) and sun-loving prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis, Zones 3 to 9), show off particularly well in sites like these, where their graceful foliage appears to flow downhill.

Perk up your plantings

Are your perennial plantings looking a bit boring? The spiky forms of ornamental grasses make striking contrasts to the mounded shapes of many flowering perennials, as well as to companions with tiny or broad leaves or flowers. Medium-sized to tall types, such as ‘Karley Rose’ Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale, Zones 5 to 9) and Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha, Zones 4 to 9), add much-needed height to vertically challenged beds and borders.

Grasses don’t usually get much press for their colors, but their foliage can rival some of the most eye-catching annuals and perennials. Consider cool blue fescue (Festuca glauca, Zones 4 to 8), near-black Vertigo fountain grass (Pennisetum purpureum ‘Tift 8’, Zones 8 to 10) or ruby red Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’, Zones 5 to 9), to name just a few.

In addition to their texture and color contributions, grasses are invaluable for getting summer-centric beds and borders to look good both earlier and later in the season. Create a cheery spring display by combining bulbs with early risers, such as golden wood millet (Milium effusum ‘Aureum’, Zones 5 to 9). Then extend the summer show into autumn with grasses with fantastic fall color, like flame grass (Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’, Zones 5 to 9).

Include some selections with evergreen foliage or longlasting leaves and seedheads, such as switch grass (Panicum virgatum, Zones 4 to 9), and you have an easy recipe for a gorgeous four-season garden.

8 Sassy Grasses

Ready to liven up your landscape with some of these eye-catching, easy-care plants? Try these top-notch selections that can add multi-season interest to your gardens. Zones may vary, depending on the cultivar.

1. ‘Evergold’ sedge
(Carex oshimensis)
The arching, glossy, evergreen leaves of ‘Evergold’ have a narrow cream to yellow center stripe. They grow in 12- to 16-inch-tall mounds. Part shade.
Zones 6 to 9

2. Feather reed grass
(Calamagrostis x acutiflora)
Feather reed grass starts growing early in spring, quickly forming leafy clumps that reach about 3 feet tall. Pinkish plumes bloom in early summer atop 4- to 6-foot-tall stems. Full sun to part shade.
Zones 4 to 9

3. Fountain grass
(Pennisetum alopecuroides)
This clumping grass forms fountain-like mounds of arching green leaves. Bottlebrush flower spikes appear atop 3- to 4-foot-tall stems in midto late summer. Full sun to part shade.
Zones 4 or 5 to 9 or 10

4. Hakone grass (above)
(Hakonechloa macra)
Hakone grass has gracefully arching foliage and grows in 1- to 2-foot-tall, slowly expanding clumps. ‘Aureola’ (pictured below) is striped; ‘All Gold’ is solid yellow. Part shade.
Zones 5 to 9

5. Japanese blood grass
(Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’)
The spiky, green leaf blades of Japanese blood grass start out with red tips in late spring and turn completely red in fall. Slow-spreading clumps are typically 12 to 18 inches tall. Full sun to part shade.
Zones 5 to 9

6. Maiden grass
(Miscanthus sinensis)
This classic clump-former, also known as eulalia, grows 3 to 8 feet tall, depending on the cultivar, with arching green or variegated leaves. Reddish, whisk-like flower clusters appear above the leaves in late summer and fall. Full sun.
Zones 5 to 9

7. Mexican feather grass
(Nassella tenuissima)
The 18- to 24-inch-tall, bright green fountains of this grass, also known as Stipa tenuissima, grace your garden by late spring and then develop feathery golden tips as the seeds develop in summer. Full sun to part shade.
Zones 6 to 10

8. Switch grass
(Panicum virgatum)
Clump-forming switch grasses can reach 3 to 7 feet tall, depending on the cultivar, and may have reddish leaf tips in summer. All have airy flowers and seedheads in fall. Full sun.
Zones 4 to 9

Photos: Nancy Ondra, Mark Turner, Rob Cardillo, Saxon Holt, Bill Johnson, Marty Lang, Jerry Pavia