Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grass adds so much to the beauty of gardens.  Valuable traits are their form, color, texture, and motion in the garden.  Grasses are not only a summer fancy.  They add interest to all seasons.  Seasonal interest is June (once the weather warms up) to February or March (when they are cut down to allow new growth).




Grass forms are quite varied. Forms include low mounding, densely spreading, tall screens and vase-shaped.  Each grass species has its own unique form which adds an artistic flair to its surroundings.  Ornamental grass may offer the only vertical relief and excitement in a garden.




The foliage colors include various shades of green or variegated with the addition of ivory or yellow strips or bands.  Additional colors include blues and reds.  The lush colors of spring and summer foliage retreats in the fall to shades of red, beige, or brown.  The late fall foliage color lasts all winter providing a winter garden accent.  The flower (also known as inflorescence) colors include maroon, red, pink, silver, white, yellow, or beige.




Foliage texture ranges from fine (soft) to coarse (spiky). 




Movement may be seen as waving or shimmering, or heard as rustling, whispering, or sighing.  Ornamental grass’s animated movement will differ with the seasons for dry and living grasses appear and sound quite different.




Regardless of the weather, ornamental grasses are your garden problem solvers. They are hardy, tough, durable and virtually free of pests and diseases. Birds will benefit from the grasses in your yard.  They like to use the leaves for nesting materials, and they eat the seeds.


Consider the Following Uses to Spark Interest in your Garden


Border / edging planting


Background planting


Specimen planting


Living screen planting


Groundcover planting


Mass plantings


Containers and tubs


Site Selection


When selecting grasses, be sure the site has the appropriate level of light.  Most grasses prefer full sun.  If not given enough light, especially tall varieties, they will have a tendency to flop.  If your site is fairly shady, it would be best to select a grass that prefers or is tolerant of shade.  Remember the saying “Right plant, right place” to avoid disappointment with the plants performance.


Grasses are not too fussy when it comes to soil, tolerating poor, dry soils to clay.  The only situation they will not tolerate is constantly wet soil.


Plant Selection


The selection of grass cultivars is ever increasing.  There are a wide range of height, spread, color, and flowering times available.  One of the two key things to consider when selecting a grass is its height.  Ornamental grasses can range in height from several inches to 15 feet!


Tall (6’ to 15’), upright growing types create visual interest, especially when used towards the back of a border.  Their bold lines break up space over a long season, some remaining attractive well into the winter. 


Medium-Sized (2’ to 6’), grasses may be effectively massed together, particularly in gardens with a low maintenance emphasis.  Spring-flowering bulbs combine well with these for early season interest.  These grasses also can be used as specimen plants throughout your garden without taking up too much space.


Low Growing (less than 2’), grasses are ideal for edging around shrubs or combining with spreading evergreens.  When mass-planted, they will form an attractive low maintenance groundcover.


The second key thing to consider when selecting a grass is its climate zone.  The further south you live, the larger selection of grasses to choose from.  As you live further north, some varieties will drop off of your list.  But don’t be down!  There are many attractive grasses available which are even hardy to zone 2.


Grasses which are marginally hardy for your area may be successfully grown with appropriate over wintering techniques.  Know your marginally hardy grasses and protect them to save your investment and the mature look that a large grass clump will add to your garden.


Site Preparation


Double dig the area and till in any time good organic material.  Many of varieties of ornamental grasses have roots that go deep, especially those that can tolerate dry spells. Give them a nice area to spread out their feet.




Know the mature size of your grass.  Don’t try to skimp space, for if you do, your garden will easily look overgrown and jungle like. After preparing soil, dig a hole deep enough to hold the root ball. Remove pot; break up the root ball if it is root bound.  Grasses don’t mind if their feet are disturbed! Place root in hole, fill with water. Refill with soil.  Root ball should be slightly below soil surface.




Grasses, like your lawn, do quite well with regular fertilizing.




For the first year, baby the grass, giving them ample moisture so that they can develop a healthy root system.  For established clumps, keep familiar with the moisture needs and water accordingly. 


Weed Control


Weed control generally is not a problem.  It is very difficult for weeds to invade the grass clump.  If this happens, just put out what you can by hand.  The grass itself will help to smother the grass allowing no sunlight for it to further develop.  Mulch around the grass or keep it tilled to eliminate weed growth, just like any ornamental perennial bed.


Pest Control


Grasses are generally pest free.


Winter Preparation


Mulch grasses that are marginally hardy or those that have a tendency for winter kill in our area.


Division and Renovation


It is generally best to divide grasses in the spring just as they are beginning to break dormancy.  Dig the plant completely, and cut with a sharp knife.  You will be surprised at how well some of the grasses root themselves.


As grass clumps get older, they may have a tendency to go dead center.  There is nothing wrong with the plant, it is just getting too woody, that is too much old growth has smothered the room for new growth.  This is definitely time to renovate the plant.  Dig the plant, remove the dead center, divide if desired, and replant.