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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.
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′)
- (Tall) Maiden Grasses (Miscanthus spp.)
- Pampas Grasses (Cortederia spp.)
- Ravenna grass (Saccharum spp.)
Medium Ornamental Grasses (4-5′)
- (Small) Fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.)
- Switchgrasses (Panicum spp.)
- Feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis spp.)
- Little Bluestem grasses (Schizachyrium spp.)
- Blue oat grasses (Helictotrichon spp.)
- (Medium) Maiden grasses (Miscanthus)
Dwarf Ornamental Grasses (1-3′)
- (Small) Fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.)
- Sedge grasses (Carex spp.)
- Liriope (Liriope spp.)
- Blue grama grasses (Bouteloua spp.)
- Indian grass (Sorghastrum spp.)
- Fescues (Festuca spp.)
- Mondo grasses (Ophiopogon spp.)
- Japanese forest grasses (Hakonechloa spp.)
- Lovegrass (Eragrostis spp.)
A special thanks to Bamboo Ranch from Tucson, AZ for contributing this awesome section on bamboo for our article. If you want to learn more about them (or about growing bamboo in the desert), you should check them out.
- Some Background on The Bamboo Ranch
- Small Bamboos for Compact Yards and Patios
- Medium or Large Bamboos for Very Large Planters or In-Ground Designs
- Decorating Options with Bamboo
- Growing Bamboo in the Desert
- Bamboos That Are Not Bamboos
What Can Ornamental Grasses Do For You?
- Best Ornamental Grasses for Privacy
- Best Ornamental Grasses for Small Gardens
- Best Ornamental Grasses for Shade
- Ornamental Grasses for Pathways or Hedging
- Ornamental Grasses for Containers
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.
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
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.)
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.)
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 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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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 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′)
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.)
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.)
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 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.)
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.)
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.)
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 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.)
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.)
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.
Bamboo is a giant woody grass. There are around 1500 different species of bamboo in the world. Bamboo flowers only rarely, and then sometimes all the plants in the same species flower within a few years of each other, all over the world. This is known as gregarious flowering.
Each bamboo plant makes a beautiful grove with more and more canes each season. From privacy hedges, or patio plants on a small scale, to medium sized groves for poolside or urban spaces, to towering giants for shade and screen, there is a bamboo for every design.
Let’s take a look at a few kinds of bamboo and the ornamental options they provide. Also worth noting, for the purposes of this section, we’ll only be talking about clumping bamboos, which have short rhizomes and cannot spread underground any distance.
Some Background on The Bamboo Ranch
Bamboo Ranch is located in Tucson, AZ and they specialize in (well, you guessed it…) bamboo. They provide both clumping and running types along with excellent expert advice. You can go check them out by making an appointment. (contact info is below)
Visitors receive written information and plants come with detailed planting and care instructions. Bamboo Ranch plants are raised in the desert, unlike those from most nurseries, which are grown in greenhouses. We have over 100 different varieties.
They provide well developed plant starts in 15-gallon and larger sizes. These starts will reach mature size in around 3 years, doubling in size each season. This saves a year or two of growing time over a smaller, younger plant. For many applications, one plant (grove) is all you need to create a vibrant addition to your landscape.
You can always reach out to them to arrange a visit in Tucson: Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday by appointment.
Phone: 520 743 9879
All usual forms of payment accepted.
Small Bamboos for Compact Yards and Patios
Some small clumping bamboos are ideal for container plantings, such as Chinese Goddess (Bambusa multiplex rivieriorum) and Tiny Fern (B. multiplex “Tiny Fern”).
They are graceful like other grasses but these two have an arching form, giving you lots of bang for your buck if planted as a screen. Chinese Goddess tops out at around 6′, and Tiny Fern is mature at about 3-4′ tall. There’s a larger version called Fern Leaf too. All have charming tiny fernlike leaves.
A plus with bamboo is no flowers or seeds, making them absorb dust without adding to allergies themselves. Every season more canes are produced, and by
regularly thinning older canes, the plant constantly is renewed.
Medium or Large Bamboos for Very Large Planters or In-Ground Designs
When choosing a bamboo for your landscape, not only the mature size but the typical shape of the species should be considered. Slender, erect medium sized ones like Graceful (B. textilis gracilis) or Silverstripe Blowpipe (B. dolichomerithalla Silverstripe) can fit into a relatively small corner or large planter.
Larger ones like Buddha’s Belly, Sea Breeze or even the giant timber varieties need a lot of space, like planting a tree.
Decorating Options with Bamboo
Tropical looking bamboos with large leaves and yellow and green striped canes can make a big impact, such as Greenstripe Blowpipe, Asian Lemon, and Alphonse Karr. Others that are plain green give a soothing background without showing off. For shady locations, there’s a small runner with giant variegated leaves called Shiroshima (Hibanobambusa tranquilans “Shiroshima”).
Runners like these need not invade adjacent areas if planted in a container on an impervious surface. A beautiful medium sized, erect clumper with variegated leaves is Silverstripe Hedge (B. multiplex).
Growing Bamboo in the Desert
One of the interesting things about bamboo is that it can also be grown in the desert (if you know what you’re doing). Bamboo Ranch specializes in exactly that. Here’s how they go about it.
“How growing bamboo in the desert works is we try to fool them into thinking they are somewhere else, like California or Oregon.
We do that by radically improving the desert soil, which resembles cement. Many desert gardeners prefer containergardening, which saves a lot of work. Bamboo prefers sandy loam if it can get it.
Most species can handle full sun once established; some varieties are happy enough with morning sun but some solar-oven west facing hardscape arrangements can be a challenge.”
Bamboos That Are Not Bamboos
The funny thing about some bamboos is that they are actually not bamboos at all. While they may look bamboo-like, or even have “bamboo” in the name, they are actually different plants altogether. Nevertheless, they’re worth noting just for fun. Let’s take a look at the runners up for this section:
Heavenly Bamboo – also known as Sacred Bamboo, or Nandina domestica (Nandina for short). This one is a species of the Berberidaceae family which is not related to bamboo.
Lucky Bamboo – also known as Dracaena sanderiana is another one that seems really close, however it is not directly related to bamboo. One of the main differences is that Lucky Bamboo can live while submerged in water, whereas most real bamboos cannot.
Giant Reed – also known as Carrizo, Arundo donax, or Caňa Blanca. This one is a tall perennial cane that can grow up to 20′ tall.
Common Reed – also known as Phragmites communis. It’s similar to the Giant Reed just smaller, reaching about 6′ in height. Once again, not a bamboo
Bamboo Palm – also known as Chamaedorea costaricana. This one is a slow-growing small palm, originating from Central and South America. They’re ideal for shaded borders and as indoor potted plants.
Bamboo Muhly – also known as Muhlenbergia dumosa. It’s a clumping grass with the appearance of a small bamboo.
What Can Ornamental Grass Do For You?
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.
Best Ornamental 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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