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Ornamental Grasses

Choosing an Ornamental Grass
So many ornamental grasses are available that you have a number of choices among those that are well behaved and unlikely to pose a future threat to your landscape.  They range in size from low, compact plants to huge giants.  Some are showy all season and others add color to a home landscape in late fall and winter when the scenery is otherwise drab.  Look for the one that will appropriate for your area.  A collection of 12-foot Giant Reed Grass (Arundo donax) can be a gorgeous traffic-stopper in a park, but quite out of place in a small backyard.

A few grasses are suitable for northern gardens, but most grow best in Zones 5 and warmer.  In cooler zones, cutting back those that are half hardy and mulching them with evergreen boughs offers winter protection, but then, unfortunately, you lose their attractive fall and winter color.  Nearly all ornamental grasses become dormant in the winter in cold regions, but many of them are evergreen in mild climates.

To avoid planting species that you may not like later, visit a nursery where display bes of the platns are growing and see how they look when they are mature.  If you buy a variety and don't know its growing habits, isolate it for a year before giving it space in your garden.


Right Plant, Right Place

Ornamental grasses, depending on their habit of growth (clumping or spreading), can be used in many areas of the yard.  The key is making a good match, so you are not constantly reining them in or wishing you'd planted more.

Generally speaking, they need plenty of sun.  It's also a good idea to give ornamental grasses plenty of elbow room on all sides, so they can grow freely and be admired from various angles (the ones that produce great flower plumes are spectacular when backlit by the sun)

Slopes and banks.  Ornamental grasses are a good choice for stabilizing steep or uneven ground or for preventing erosion.  They can grow in places you cannot or don't wish to mow, and their deep roots will anchor the soil.   Once established, they should also crowd out weeds or other unwanted plants.

Curb strips. These grasses make a tough, eye-catching planting, if you don't want to maintain lawn grasses there, or if you consider flowers or shrubs too vulnerable or too high-maintenance.

Perennial borders.  Choose candidates with care, or plant lusty growers in containers, before introducing ornamental grasses to a flower bed.  They can look wonderful in the company of plants for sun and soil.  A popular combination with good reason, is fountain grasses with Black-Eyed Susans, Coreopsis, and other domesticated wildflowers. 

Containers.  Aggresive but handsome grasses look terrific in large containers.  A pair set in formal iron or terra cotta pots flanking a doorway, stairway or garden entrance can be very dramatic.  Whatever you decide, be sure to site it first, because a pot full of soil and plants may be too heavy or unwiedly to move around.  One last note:  If the grass you want is not hardy in your area, potting it (and bringing it in during the winter months) might be worth trying.


Ornamental Grasses for Specific Sites

Most ornamental grasses like full sun, but some tolerate partial shade.  Most prefer good to average soil that is well-drained but some like it boggy.  Unlike lawn grasses, fertilize them only if growth is poor.  Mow or cut back annualy in late winter or early spring.

Fast Spreaders
Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca)
Fountain Grass (Pennisetum)
Giant Reed (Arundo donax)
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Pampass Grass (Cortaderia selloana)
Hairgrass (Deschampsia caepitosa)
White-striped Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea)

Best for Dry Areas
Blue Hairgrass (Koeleria glauca)
Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Ravenna Grass (Erianthus ravennae)

Best for Wet Areas
Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Stricta')
Japanese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sinensis)
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)
White-striped Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea 'Picta')

Best for Shaded Areas
Golden Variegated Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola')
Northern Sea Oats (Chasmantium latifolium)
Sedges (Carex)
White-striped Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea 'Picta')


Recommended Ornamental Grasses

Name Feature Conditions Height
Blue Fescue
Festuca glauca
Silvery blue evergreen foliage Sun in cool climates;  Likes moist, well-drained soils 8-12"
Blue Oat Grass
Helictotrichon sempervirens
Showy, narrow, blue, pointed leaves;  3-4 foot stems bearing bluish white oatlike flowers that later turn gold Sun or light shade;  well-drained fertile soil Up to 24"
Fountain Grass
Pennisetum alopecuroides
Creamy white to pinkish flowers in midsummer in long clusters Sun, light shade; fertile, moist, well-drained soil 36"
Giant Reed
Arundo donax
Wide 2 foot leaves;  can be invasive Full sun in cool climates;  moist, well-drained soil 24-36"
Golden Variegated Hakone Grass
Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'
Yellow, bamboo-like leaves striped with green Light shade;  moist, well-drained fertile soil 24"
Japanese Silver Grass
Miscanthus sinensis
Silver to purple flower plumes from midsummer to early fall on 6-10" spikes; silver-colored foliage turns brown later, then to various hues of red, rust and yellow Full sun; moist, humus rich soil Foliage height 3-5';  flower spikes are 6-10'
Northern Sea Oats
Chasmanthium latifolium
Flat green blooms, with seeds that turn copper colored in fall;  light green foliage that turns copper colored in fall and brown in winter Full sun in cool climates;  moist, fertile soil 36"
Ravenna Grass
Erianthus ravennae
Silvery flowers with purple tones that become a creamy color;  blooms in fall, lasts into winter Ful sun;  well-drained, moist, fertile soil 60"


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