Add Interest to Your Lawn With Ornamental Grasses

You can count on these beautiful, low-maintenance and easy-growing ornamental grasses to add color to your yard all year long.
By: Julie A Martens

©Julie A. Martens

Photo By: Edward Post ©Bailey Nurseries

Photo By: www.chrisbrownphoto.com ©Proven Winners

©Julie A. Martens

©ProvenWinners.com

©2009, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©American Beauties Native Plants

©Julie A. Martens

©Bailey Nurseries

©American Beauties Native Plants

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2009, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses deliver a lot of bang for the buck. They introduce exciting textures to the garden, along with movement and even sound as they rustle in the breeze. You can select grasses in nearly any hue, including dark burgundy, steely blue, white and green blends, gold and bronze. Leaves often change colors during the growing season, shifting to rich, deeper shades in autumn, followed by muted winter tones. Grass seedheads can be delicate, but in most cases they command attention and introduce a new element to a planting. Check out a few of our favorite grasses.

Desert Plains Fountain Grass

Desert Plains fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) forms an upright vase-shaped clump in the garden. The narrow leaves are green until midsummer, when they start shifting to deep red. By autumn, leaves blaze in orange and gold shades. Eye-catching five-inch bottlebrush seedheads appear in early fall. Use this grass for a focal point in a planting bed, skirting it with chunky-textured plants, like autumn-blooming sedums, brunnera or peonies. Tuck plants into a spot with full sun to part shade and rich, well-drained soil. Desert Plains fountain grass is deer resistant and hardy in Zones 5 to 9.

Mexican Feather Grass

Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) introduces an elegant presence to the garden with its narrow, refined upright foliage that forms an attractive fountain. Showy seed plumes with a feathery texture appear in summer. One clump isn’t enough of this pretty grass. It’s more spectacular when planted in multiples. Give plants full sun in fertile, well-drained soil. Plants are deer and drought resistant and hardy in Zones 7 to 11. This grass does self-sow readily and in some regions has been reported as invasive. Check with your local extension office or search online to determine if this grass is a problem in your area. To prevent self-sowing, snip seed plumes before seeds mature.

Toffee Twist Sedge

Toffee Twist sedge (Carex flagellifera) injects a coppery hue into plantings. Sedges are not true grasses, but you can use them in the landscape just like an ornamental grass. Toffee Twist forms a tidy clump that’s roughly 18 to 24 inches tall and wide. It’s an ideal size for pairing with chunky-leafed perennials, like Jack Frost brunnera and Lenten roses (shown). Breeders report this plant as being hardy in Zones 7 to 10, but gardeners in Zone 5b have consistently reported successful overwintering. Give this sedge rich, well-drained soil in sun to part shade. Trim plants in early spring before new growth begins.

Golden Japanese Forest Grass

You’ll savor gracefully-arching mounds of gold-striped leaves when you plant golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). Tuck this beauty along the edge of a planting area or in an elevated container so leaves can cascade freely. For best results, give plants moist but well-drained soil that’s been enriched with organic matter. Leaf color shifts depending on light level. In full shade, leaves display lime green stripes (no gold). In part shade, the gold and green variegation appears. Plants are deer resistant and hardy in Zones 5 to 9.

Blue Oat Grass

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) adds spiky drama to planting areas with its porcupine-like clumps of steely-blue foliage. The best blue tones develop in plants growing in dry soils in full sun. Flower plumes appear in early summer, opening in blue-brown shades and shifting to wheat color by fall. Blue oat grass is hardy in Zones 4 to 8 and resists drought, deer and black walnut trees. Trim plants in early spring before new growth appears. Use blue oat grass in rock gardens or paired with blue spruce or blue-tinted junipers.

Prairie Dropseed

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is a native prairie grass that forms graceful clumps in the landscape. This fine-textured grass is perfect for edging planting beds or pairing with other perennials. Give plants a location in full sun with well-drained, dry, rocky soil. Too little sunlight causes plants to flop open. Include drought-tolerant prairie dropseed in wildlife gardens. It provides cover for foraging birds, nesting material and abundant seed. Plants are hardy in Zones 3 to 7 and boast heat and drought tolerance.

Morning Light Miscanthus

Morning Light miscanthus (Mischanthus sinensis) is beautiful and easy to grow. It makes a great first choice for gardeners new to growing ornamental grasses. Give plants good drainage and full sun, and they’ll thrive. Green leaf blades have thin white margins that give the plant an eye-catching silvery cast. Miscanthus is versatile from a design standpoint, holding its own as a specimen plant or playing prettily with other perennials. Pair it with bee balm and Russian sage for a season-long show. Flower plumes appear in late fall, shifting from red-bronze to cream tones with a fluffy texture. Plants are hardy in Zones 5 to 9 and soar 4 to 5 feet high. Deer and rabbits leave this grass alone. Wear long sleeves when trimming plants in late winter or working near them. Razor-sharp leaf edges create paper-type cuts in skin.

Prairie Sky Switchgrass

Switchgrass clumps grow straight up, creating a vertical accent in a xeriscape. Prairie Sky switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) soars to 6 feet tall and boasts a succession of color: summer’s blue-tone leaves fade to yellow in fall, then brown in winter. Seedheads open deep red in summer, forming a pinkish cloud above foliage. Seedheads fade to beige and linger into mid-winter. Plants tolerate drought, deer and black walnut and are hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

The Blues Little Bluestem

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’) is a native prairie grass that ranges from Maine to Florida to Arizona. The Blues cultivar brings strong color to the garden with blue-green stems that turn fiery red-orange in autumn. Plants are deer resistant, drought-tolerant once established and hardy in Zones 3 to 9. Include little bluestem to bring skipper butterflies to the garden and provide forage for birds. This is the grass for those hot, dry, full-sun spots where nothing else survives. Plants also tolerate heat and humidity. Cut this grass to the ground before winter to promote stronger stems the following spring.

Pampas Grass

Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) is an architectural grass with a strong upright form. Plants reach 8 to 12 feet tall in a single growing season. Feathery flower plumes appear in fall and linger through winter. Grow in full sun to part shade in well-drained soil. Plants are drought tolerant once established. Pampas grass is hardy in Zones 7 to 10. Trim clumps to the ground in late winter. Leaves have razor-sharp edges, so always wear long sleeves and gloves when working near or with this grass. Plants self-sow freely and are invasive in some western states, such as California and Hawaii. Check with your local extension office to determine if it’s a recommended plant for your area.

Purple Fountain Grass

Deep wine-colored leaves make purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) a stand-out in any planting. It blends beautifully with pink, white or lavender leaves and flowers. Buff-colored, bottlebrush seed heads appear in late summer and linger through winter. Leaves and seedheads turn a lovely straw color after frost arrives. Purple fountain grass is widely used as an annual and looks fantastic in containers or planting beds. This perennial is deer resistant and hardy in Zones 9 to 11. Give plants full sun and well-drained soil for best results.

Giant Reed Grass

Giant reed grass (Arundo donax) creates a bamboo-like presence in the landscape with its towering stems and long, flowing leaves. The name hints at the fact that woodwind instrument reeds are made from stems from this grass. This versatile grass can grow in well-drained soil or standing water, in sand or clay. It’s an ideal plant for a rain garden. Flowers appear in late summer to early fall in warmer climates. In colder regions, the growing season may not be warm or long enough to allow flowering. Plants soar 10 to 20 feet tall and are hardy in Zones 6 to 10. In warmer Zones 9 to 11, plants can spread aggressively by underground stems and self-seeding. Choose planting sites carefully, and cut down seed plumes before seeds are released. Tall foliage can require staking in windy areas.

Japanese Blood Grass

Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) earns its name from the vivid red tints that emerge along the upper half of leaves in summer, giving them a blood-dipped appearance. The red deepens as summer slides into fall, until leaves show a deep burgundy hue. Plants develop the best leaf color in full sun, although they will grow in part shade. Japanese blood grass is shorter, growing 12 to 18 inches tall. Use it as an edging plant or in containers. Plants typically go dormant in winter and rarely flower. This ornamental grass is hardy in Zones 5 to 9. Cut plants to the ground in early spring. The species of this grass is highly invasive. If leaves shift to entirely green, dig, remove and destroy (burn) every piece of the plant, including the underground stems. Do not add that plant to your compost pile.

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