Ornamental grasses are like a favorite pair of pants with a little stretch – dress them up, dress them down, give them center stage or use them to hide imperfections.
As landscape elements, ornamental grasses add height, texture, drama, color and multi-season interest. Fast-growing, they’ll shield an air conditioner, unsightly corner or chain-link fence.
These grasses are easy-care and drought tolerant once established. Ornamental grasses number in the hundreds and include true grasses, rushes and sedges. Maiden Grass, Fountain Grass, including purple varieties, and Pampas Grass, including dwarf varieties, have been popular for years.
But landscapers and home gardeners are using more and more grasses native to the U.S., including grass prairie switch grass (Panicum virgatum), wild sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).
There are warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. Most ornamental grasses are hardy and perennial to Zone 5, though some such as the deep purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’)and Fiber Optic Grass (Isolepsis Scirpus) can be planted as annuals.
- Edgings and Borders: Use low-growing sedges along walkways or bed borders. Plant them closer together the species guidelines suggest to create a good line and quick results but be prepared to divide them after a year or two. Blue fescue is another great edging option.
- Containers: Create a container garden with two or three ornamental grasses or use one dramatic type as the focal point, or “thriller” in the thriller-filler-spiller triad of container design. Tall containers with ornamental grasses make a formal statement and look great on flagstone patios and against walls.
- Ground Covers: Add ornamental grasses to reduce yard space that requires mowing and irrigation and group low-growing grasses such as blue fescue. Many sedges, in the family Carex, perform well in shade and are evergreen.
- Privacy: Group tall grasses for a fast-growing screen. Big Bluestem can reach 6 feet, Moor Grass, 7 feet or more), and Ravenna Grass can top 12 feet or more. Because ornamental grasses get cut back in early spring, expect a bare few months but will fill in quickly.
After planting or dividing, most ornamental grasses need regular watering for a year or two. However, over-watering is the biggest threat because these plants don’t like soggy roots. Too much fertilizer can make ornamental grasses droopy.
Because these graceful garden additions grow so well, watch for the tell-tale dead center, a sign dividing is overdue.
Remember, too, that bamboo is an ornamental grass. Anyone who has planted bamboo knows all too well to select clumping varieties, not running ones.