Ornamental Grasses–the Beauty and Benefits

The Beauty and Benefits of Ornamental Grasses

When I first began gardening, I thought of ornamental grasses as giants and bullies in the garden. As I began to appreciate the diversity in size, texture, form, color and vigor these plants have to offer, I realized how wrong I was. Suddenly I saw that ornamental grass could play well with others as a specimen or filler. They complement and provide continuity with different types of ornamental grasses while contrasting with heavy textured perennials and shrubs. They make great accents in pots. In addition to every shade of green imaginable, they come in a broad spectrum of color ranging from dusty blues, to silver and purple, all the way to red and yellow. Some are vertical and as tall as a house, while others form small pillowy mounds. The possibilities, I learned, were limitless in how these dynamic plants could be used in the landscape.

This diversity in the grass or Gramineae family is a reflection of the range of habitats they come from. Grasses are found in prairies, on beaches, in the forest, along rivers and in swamps. Many of the crops that we depend on, such as corn, wheat and rice, are grasses — even bamboo is a grass. These are versatile plants and today are some of the most beautiful plants gracing our gardens.

Now that the perennials and annuals are mostly finished for the year, the grasses look amazing on their own, which may be why I thought to write about them. There is no one time of the year when ornamental grasses look their best –they endure and look beautiful in all four seasons. They need to be cut back briefly in the late winter but soon emerge with fresh new leaves and announce the spring.

On top of all of this, ornamental grasses are relatively easy to care for and very few pests bother them. They only need to be cut back once a year to about 4-8 inches in the late winter or early spring. The best time to divide grasses is after the ground warms up and you see new growth developing. However, most ornamental grasses are so vigorous in our rich soils that I can cut them back and divide them all the way through the summer. Take divisions to control the size of the clump and help maintain vigor. It’s a good idea to leave soil on the roots of the divided clumps. Grasses benefit from a yearly dose of a mild organic fertilizer or compost mulch.

So when you are in your yard, look beyond the carpeted turf grass of your lawn and consider contrasting it and your garden with any number of these beautiful low-maintenance grasses. You will be rewarded with year round beauty and interest. Below I have listed a few grasses that I like to use.

Switch Grass – (Panicum virgatum)
This native grass forms vertical narrow clumps-it looks great en masse or solo. The seed heads are soft and airy. I prefer cultivars to the straight species and adore “Cheyenne Sky,” which has purple highlights on the tips and only grows to 3 feet. “Northwind” is another favorite, with broader steel-blue foliage growing up to 4-5 feet.

Dwarf Fountain Grass – (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
My favorite way to use this grass in in drifts, but it also looks attractive dotted around the front and middle of a border. The texture is lovely both during the growing season and as the panicles appear in the fall. This grass may need a little supplemental water in the hottest summers. “Hameln” and “Little Bunny” are excellent choices.

Maiden Grass – (Miscanthus sinensis)
This grass forms large, elegant arching clumps that work well as a screen or a specimen. This plant can be invasive in some parts of our country so it is best to select new sterile varieties.

Sedge – (Carex sp.)
This is not a member of the grass family but is grass-like, as are rushes. I love too many to name. Many of these are native and prefer moist locations, but some will tolerate very hot and dry conditions as well.

Prairie Dropseed – (Sporobolus heterolepsis)
This drought-tolerant native is very handsome as a drift with its fine foliage and airy upright flowers. It tolerates hot and dry situations and you will be rewarded with yellow gold color in the fall.

2 thoughts on “Ornamental Grasses–the Beauty and Benefits”

  1. Are any of the grasses invasive because of all the seeds they drop? I’ve seen this as a problem in my own garden. Also are there any grasses in particular that need to be avoided?

    1. Great question. Grasses and any plant you purchase need to be researched before planting. Many can be aggressive, which is not invasive. Miscanthus sinensis is invasive in some of the warmer parts of our country. River or Creek Oats and Bluestem, both natives, can be a real nuisance reseeding in our fertile soils. Fountain grass will reseed but I have not seen it to be aggressive. Most of the ornamental grass cultivars sold are sterile or sold as sterile and responsible garden centers do not sell invasive species. –Jesse

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