Ornamental Grasses – Your Complete Guide

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Today we present you with our complete guide to ornamental grasses.

Ornamental grasses have their roots in ancient cultures around the world.  They evolved over 55 million years ago.

Most ornamental grasses are perennials, but some are evergreens and others are annuals.

They begin to sprout in early spring and continue to grow throughout the spring, summer, and fall seasons.

Some gardeners decide to keep their grasses showing in their gardens through the winter to add extra designs to the stark scenery.

Other gardeners like to cut these ornamentals back to about a foot from the soil in the fall, preparing them for the new season early.  Cutting them back in the late fall or early spring is the gardener’s choice.

Besides being a beautiful addition to any garden, ornamental grasses are easy to grow and resilient to cold or hot weather.

Ornamental-Grass-Standing-Ovation

These plants will make your garden look splendid throughout four seasons, and give it an extra grassy texture, sounds, colors, and movement.

They also bring a professional touch to the garden, although you don’t have to be an expert to grow them.

Use this table of contents to navigate this article to the section you’d like to know more about.

Table of Contents

Tall ornamental grasses (6′ – 10′)

Medium Ornamental Grasses (4-5′)

Dwarf Ornamental Grasses (1-3′)

What Can Ornamental Grasses Do For You?

How to Take Care of Your Ornamental Grasses

Alright, let’s get started!


Understanding Ornamental Grass

Almost all of these ornamental plants are perennials, which means they are coming up in spring, from their roots, and go dormant in fall or winter.

They can be evergreen or annuals as we’ve mentioned, but it is easier to stay with the perennials.  They require less work.

Some of them form systems of rhizomes, while others are a tussock or bunch grasses which means they are singular in a clump formation.

ornamental grasses

The bunching types are known as “clumping”, distinct from the rhizomatous types, called “running.”

They come in different sizes, from a few centimeters up to several meters.

Some ornamental grasses can be grown from seed, while others must be propagated from an existing plant such as the rhizomatous types. 

There are numerous different types of ornamental grass. Let’s mention some of the most famous such as Blue Oat Grass, Maiden Grass, Pampas Grass, Purple Fountain Grass, Morning Light Maiden Grass…


How to Choose the Best Ornamental Grass

watering ornamental grass

There are so many types and species that it can be hard to decide.

Before the final decision, take some time to ensure that the kind of grass you are going to plant is a good fit for your lifestyle and space.

You should keep in mind the full size that your future plant can attain. As this is the first characteristic to consider, we’ll group some of the famous species according to their maximal height.


Tall Ornamental Grass (6-10′)

Tall ornamental grass can afford you privacy and bring a touch of elegance to your garden.

But if you want to enjoy your plant for many years to come, it’s essential to reserve adequate space for its final size.  Large grasses like Maiden grass is difficult to move as it grows bigger.

(Tall) Maiden Grasses (Miscanthus spp.)

Miscanthus-sinensis-Adagio

Maiden grasses come in many sizes and colors and are one of the most versatile and well-used of all ornamental grasses.

Their vase-shaped and tightly clumping flowers are gorgeous in autumn. These plants like sun and part shade. They can be invasive, so they may need staking.


Pampas Grass (Cortederia spp.)

white-pampas-grass

These tall, warm climate grasses are well known for large white plumes.

Here’s an interesting video on Pampas Grass.

Dwarf varieties of Pampas Grass are still quite tall, just 2-3 feet smaller than the full-sized species.  These sun-loving plants look splendid, but can be invasive.


Ravenna Grass (Saccharum spp.)

Ravenna grass

Ravenna grass is one of the tallest ornamental grasses. You can use it as a strong vertical accent in the garden without necessarily obstructing other views.

Keep watching any attempts to spread, because this grass can grow crazy.  It’s also loves the sun.

Here’s a video showing how to control Ravenna Grass.


Medium Ornamental Grass (4-5′)

Medium sized ornamental grasses tend to be the most popular because they can fit in well with other species without too much difficulty.

They take up little space and they don’t grow too tall, so you won’t have to worry about these medium sized grasses dominating the group they are living with.

They allow you to create layers of texture and movement in your garden. They are not too invasive so rarely need staking, and can stand as a focal point, or provide a contrasting background to other perennials.

Grown this way, or as a small group of specimens, they are attractive, for their interesting natural shape and color. They’re also easy to grow in containers.

Here are some favorite medium sized grasses to consider for your garden.

(Small) Fountain Grass (Pennisetum spp.)

giant fountain grass

Fountain grasses are an excellent choice for adding delicate, vivid interest to a garden or decorative containers.  Large, fluffy seed heads in varying hues of soft pink and taupe look extraordinary. 

This grass loves sun or part shade. Some species in this genus are annual in colder climates.


Switch Grass (Panicum spp.)

switchgrass

Switchgrasses are clump-forming grasses with a strongly upright habit.  They form silvery-red bloom in late summer and can easily adapt to poor soil.

Watch this video for more information about Switchgrass.

Switchgrasses are sun-loving, and an excellent choice for combining with wildflowers and restoring plain meadows.


Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis spp.)

Popular_Calamagrostis_CalAKF-garden

Feather reed grasses can add a sharp, vertical accent to a landscape, or a wider, softer one, depending on the species.

The best environment for this grass is moisture-retentive soil, but it can cope with drier soils once established.

For mixed textures and architectural look, pair with lower growing perennials.

Watch this video for more info on Feather Reed Grass.

…and this video for info on pruning it.

These sun-loving grasses are most beautiful late in the season, with seed heads.


Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium spp.)

schizachyrium-scoparium-little-bluestem-main_529x705

Native in fields and meadows, also known as Beardgrass, clumps of Little Bluestem begin as blue-green grasses and end the season in deep bronze and chestnut shades.

This grass is a widespread self-seeder that will naturalize beautifully over time.  Little Bluestem loves the sun and can be used to form large colonies.


Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon spp.)

Blue oat grasses (Helictotrichon spp.)

A perfect addition to a garden, Blue Oat grasses are particularly stunning with the contrast of blue-grey leaves and yellowish flowers in mid-summer.

Here is an excellent video providing more information about Blue Oat Grass.

Sunny rich soils are ideal for Blue Oat Grass, but it can tolerate many soil conditions. It still however, likes to be well-drained.  Evergreen leaf blades hold their shape through winter and they also love the sun.


(Medium) Maiden Grass (Miscanthus)

(Medium) Maiden grasses (Miscanthus)
Medium cultivars of the Maiden grasses are incredibly versatile.

Leaves are most often tiny and come in a variety of colors from bright, to gold banded, to almost cream.

It blooms late in summer and the colours should last throughout winter.  It prefers sun or partshade.

Love this video about maiden grass…


Dwarf Ornamental Grass (1-3′)

Dwarf Ornamental Grasses

Small ornamental grasses are fun and easy to grow. You can use them to bring new grassy texture to the garden, to fill a container, or to edge a pathway.

They bring you everything you need from an ornamental grass, without having to commit a lot or sacrifice too much space as you would for larger species. 

Small grasses are happiest in the sun, while others prefer shady, moist spots.

For a gardener who has no experience in growing ornamental grasses, they’re an excellent starter grass.

Here are some favorite small grasses for the garden.


(Small) Fountain Grass (Pennisetum spp.)

(Small) Fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.)

Smaller varieties of Fountain grasses are perfect for planting in containers or for edging pathways.

This plant, with mounding foliage, is known for foxtail-like seed heads on the top which develop in late summer.

For more info on fountain grass, watch this video.

The plant holds its shape and seed heads throughout the winter months, which gives a unique beauty to the garden throughout the whole year. Sun to part shade is recommended.


Sedge Grass (Carex spp.)

Sedge grasses (Carex spp.)

Sedges are colorful, low growing grasses, ideal for the shady, moist garden.

You can use them to edge pathways, grow them in containers, or to surround and bring some contrast to larger plants.

This video provides further illumination of the question, “What is sedge?”

They will be the happiest in part-shade to shade.


Liriope (Liriope spp.)

Liriope (Liriope spp.)

Liriope species are available in golden, silver, or chartreuse, and come in both clump-forming and spreading forms.

Here’s a video with some additional information on pruning Liriope for winter.

…and this video shows how to divide Liriope.

Sun or shade is fine for this clumping ornamental.  You might want to edge a driveway or pathway with it.


Blue Gramma Grass (Bouteloua spp.)

Bouteloua_curtipendula

Blue Gramma grasses are known for their comb-like seed heads with blue-green foliage on top.

This grass is native to much of North America,  and is drought tolerant and a heat lover. 

Although they love the sun, they are also suitable for northern places and high mountains, being cold-resistant as well.


Indian Grass (Sorghastrum spp.)

indian grass

Watch this video for more information…

Indian grass belongs to a group of native prairie grasses, known by their seed heads which are above the foliage.  These are favorite wild grasses for open sunny meadows.


Fescue Grass (Festuca spp.)

Fescues (Festuca spp.)

Ornamental Fescues grow in soft spiky clumps. They are silvery blue in color. They are great for planting in containers and complement succulents.

These grasses bloom in mid-spring and their flowers are tawny-colored which makes a wonderful contrast with the foliage. You can also use Fescues to naturalize bare soils, quickly.

They are suitable for sunny to part shade places.


Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon spp.)

Mondo grasses (Ophiopogon spp.)

Mondo grasses are actually not real grass.  They are grass-like perennials.  This shade-loving low-growing plant has been used for centuries in Japanese gardens.

They have narrow, strappy foliage, and create tufted mounds.  These mounds can be topped with blue-black berries if the plant gets enough sunlight.


Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa spp.)

hakonechloamacraaureola_mg_1_lg-main

Japanese Forest grass loves shade to part sun.  As it grows, it will create waterfalls of low, mounding color.  It’s best to plant them in groups of three or more.

It requires a lot of moisture.  It’s available in a vast palette of colors, and it will bring lots of colours to your shady garden.


Love Grass (Eragrostis spp.)

weeping_lovegrass_inflo

Lovegrass is a soft, low, green grass that is a favorite for stabilizing banks or open areas.  It grows fast and spreads via seeds.

The foliage tends to bend over in some species, creating soft, tufted mounds. This grass is also another sunlover.

In places like Australia, ranchers hate this grass because it spreads so quickly.  Some farmers use their sheep and cows to keep the hated Lovegrass under control.


What Can Ornamental Grass Do For You?

bill murray stripes

The design role and aesthetic function is the number one role of ornamental grasses. You can use them to create privacy, and to design the architecture of your garden.

But they can also fulfill some practical functions, like maintaining effective erosion control along a steep banks or creating an environment for wildlife.

Remember!  Most ornamental grasses grow quickly and spread easily.  Make sure you plant them for a specific reason otherwise, you might hate them later on.  Some of them are very difficult to remove.


Best Ornamental Grass for Privacy

tall grass for privacy

Although most people would choose large grasses such as Pampas and Maiden cultivars to enclose a space and create a sense of privacy, some smaller medium grasses such as Switchgrass can give you the same effect.

Of course, you can use large grasses, but remember they spread and grow fairly quickly.


Best Ornamental Grass for Small Gardens

best ornamental grass for small garden

If you have a small garden, you need to keep in mind the final size of the grass you want to grow. Usually, the best bet is clump forming grasses, such as Fountain grasses or Fescues, Japanese Forest grasses, Sedges, and Mondo grasses.

Also, you can grow medium-sized clumping grass as a specimen, such as ‘Karley Rose’ Fountain grass or ‘Morning Light’ Maiden grass.


Best Ornamental Grass for Shade

Japanese forest grasses

Taller grasses are not the best choices for shade, because they will tend to reach towards sunlight.

The best ornamental grasses for shade are the lowest growing such as sedges and Japanese forest grasses.

Also great for shade are Liriope and Mondo grass.  Although they are not technically grasses, they’ll give a grass-like effect to the landscape.

These low-growing grasses and perennials are vivid and colorful so that they will brighten up your shady space.


Ornamental Grass for Pathways or Hedging

ornamental grass for hedge or pathway

Edging with grasses will bring a professional touch to your garden and bring attention to a specific path.  But, for this purpose, you should choose grasses that are clump-forming and not aggressive when it comes to self-seeding.

Low to medium mounds of Fountain grass can be the best choice. If you want to create a tunnel effect using larger grasses, choose strongly vertical grasses, such as feather Reed grasses or Switch grasses.


Ornamental Grass for Containers

ornamental-grass-in-pot_mini

You can grow ornamental grass in a pot or a container.  Mounding cultivars of medium and small grasses are the best choice for growing in containers.

They create a soft, portable feature.  You can also combine them with other perennials to create texture in a pot.

Fountain grasses are one of the most popular container plants, but Sedges can contribute to them thanks to their colorful and evergreen nature.

Small to medium Maiden grasses are also a good choice planted on their own – particularly if you are trying to add privacy to your space.


How to Take Care of Your Ornamental Grass

Watering

grasses-in-garden

It’s important for plants to be well watered the first season after planting so they can develop a good root system.

Once established, ornamental grasses do not need daily watering. The required amount of water depends on the grass species, the position, and on the desired quality and growth.

Weed control

weeding ornamental grass

Some types of ornamental grass tend to spread, so they need monitoring.

As a responsible gardener, you should control the weeds by cultivating around the plant or place mulch to reduce the need for cultivation.


Should Ornamental Grass be cut down before winter?

cutting ornamental grass in fall

This is up to each individual gardener.  Leaving grasses up for the winter season will add shape and design to your winter yard.

If you choose to leave them alone until spring, then cut them back early to about 4-6 inches.  Spring growth will then begin earlier.  If you leave old foliage on the plant, it can delay the crown’s warming and subsequent growth by as much as three weeks.


Dividing Ornamental Grass

Division differs depending on the health of the plant, spacing, and appearance. If a plant is dying out in the center, it should be divided.

You can do it in the spring, before growth resumes or in the late summer or fall after the growing season.

Conclusion

In closing, ornamental grass has played a major role in societies around the world for a very long time.

Unlike “regular” grass that we mow and eat such as wheat, corn, rice, sugarcane, bamboo and oats, members of the ornamental family were, and are used, in gardens primarily for their beauty.

We have Karl Foerster, and outstanding German nurseryman, who pioneered the use of ornamental grass in the early 1930’s.

Today, ornamental grass and its many new varieties are making a come back in gardens around the world.

You too can join the world gardeners and improve the aesthetics of your home outdoor space.

Ornamental grass will for sure make your day a better one.

ornamental grass

BONUS VIDEO:

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