Growing Ornamental Grasses

Discover the versatile beauty and carefree nature of ornamental grasses.

Sometimes, it seems like we’re surrounded by grass. It’s in our lawns, on curbside strips, in public parks and many other ordinary places. Rarely do we consider grass more than just a green carpet to be kept in bounds and neatly cut. And seldom is it allowed to grow freely, to the point where it gets tall and even develops seedheads—certainly not!

But there is a whole other class of grasses whose beauty is catching gardeners’ attention, and they’re best appreciated when they are allowed to grow naturally. Appropriately, they’re called “ornamental grasses.” These amazingly versatile attractive plants make an entirely different statement in any garden.

Unlike lawns, ornamental grasses are encouraged to grow freely to a mature size. Not all of them sprawl or send runners constantly outward like turf. Instead, some form individual clumps, which are noninvasive. There’s everything from perky little mound-formers that make attractive edgings and ground covers to medium-size ones that fit easily into perennial borders and even containers. Then there are the granddaddies of them all…large specimens that fill the space normally given to a shrub or small tree.

Rainbow of Colors

Ornamental grasses create dramatic form and color in all seasons. Strictly upright ornamental grasses save space and deliver drama, while the ones that arch add graceful fountains of foliage. Blades may be broad and coarse, or slender and feathery—the choices are endless.

And unlike your standard one-color-fits-all lawn, the color range is truly spectacular. You can savor every hue of green imaginable, plus white, cream, yellow, powder blue and red, as well as striped and banded variations. And autumn introduces a whole new color spectrum, from tawny gold to copper to burgundy.

Then there are the flower heads, or plumes, that rise up above the foliage in mid- to late summer. These add yet more contrast to the leaves. Look for plumes with handsome shades of white, tan, pale pink, wine-purple and bronze. As fall comes, they go to seed and continue to dazzle in terms of form and color. Many gardeners clip them and add to flower arrangements, fresh or dried.

Another use is to mix ornamental grasses, in the ground or in pots, for an artful display of excitement. Their color is dependable and consistent for practically the entire growing season. And unlike most other foliage plants, they have a fine-textured presence that fits in well with most other plantings.

A Glowing Display

More than just about any other garden plant, the slender blades and intriguing plumes of ornamental grasses show off special glory in sunlight. When side-lit, some literally glow like candles. This sight is especially thrilling if you place your grass in an area of partial or part-day shade. They’ll light up an otherwise dull area, and a number of handsome grasses do just fine with less than full sun. If you wish to emphasize this special sunlit quality, be sure to plant your ornamental grasses in a more open setting so they can stand out and catch the light.

Formal or Informal? As You Wish!

Ornamental grasses can alone set the tone of a garden display. Here are just some of the many ways to use ornamental grasses in landscapes:

The lineup. Groups of like grasses in neat lines create a dependable show that brings sculptural appeal and stability to a formal landscape. Their simple and graceful forms are also an elegant addition to Asian-inspired yards.

Mix and match. Mix in single clumps of grass with a rounded form to add an accenting touch of grace—some popular uses include mixing them in the midst of a lower-growing ground cover, perched beside a reflecting pool, next to and slightly overlapping steps, or flanking a path or a terrace.

Add to perennials. Ornamental grasses fit into more casual gardens, too. Just plant into perennial borders to add a lush and spontaneous look.

Pick your color. Take advantage of the color opportunities of the blades as well as the plumes. Blue-tinted grasses, for instance, are equally at home among yellow and orange flowers or pastels, while reddish ones are sensational in the company of other hot colors.

Companions for bulbs. Add grasses to your spring bulb displays and you’ll be pleased at the way they complement the blooms, then help disguise or distract from the dying-down foliage as the flower show winds down.

Vary the size. You can also intersperse various types and heights of grasses in a patio or terrace area to create a feeling of naturalness. It’s a perfect use when your backyard is small.

Carefree locations. Another practical and popular use for these plants is on embankments or curbside areas, or any broad area where you would like low-care beauty. Plant them closely for a full look, or separate them and lay down a carpet of bark chips or other good-looking mulch. Either way, your ornamental grasses will help prevent erosion and demand little of your precious time.

Grasses in Containers? A Perfect Match

Container-grown grasses are best planted in spring so you can enjoy them all season long. Northern gardeners will need to provide extra protection, like insulating the roots by sinking pots into the ground or covering them in hay, if they want them to survive the winter.

The right pot has only two simple requirements: It needs a drainage hole so excess water can get out, and it must be big or deep enough to accommodate the extensive root system. After that, you can apply these simple rules to make your ornamental grasses stand out among your landscape plantings:

Freedom to choose containers. Matching pot size to plant is an aesthetic decision. You don’t want the display to look top-heavy or for a plant to be dwarfed by its container. When growing colorful grasses, it’s fun to use a pot that has a matching or complementary color. And while ornate or “busy” pots may be a tougher match for certain flowering perennials and annuals, they work very well with the natural simplicity of many ornamental grasses.

Elevate their presence. Elevating potted grass for added height and dimension works especially in groupings. Just place containers on another overturned pot, a cinder block or some bricks. This raises them above ground level, calling more attention to them. When carefully placed, these plants can become a focal point, one that looks terrific all season long, while companions at its feet cycle in and out of bloom. A skirt of plants around it hides the support from view—a nifty trick!

Another good reason to grow ornamental grasses in containers is they’re easier to control. A lusty grower that spreads by runners, such as ribbon grass or giant reed, can be kept in bounds or to a manageable size if contained. For these, in-ground placement is also an option if you use, say, a 2-gallon container, with the bottom cut out before planting. Just be sure to keep the container’s lip aboveground.

Keep ’em moving. Last but not least, if you like to move potted plants in and out of displays over the course of a season, ornamental grasses are very agreeable. You can tuck one into a mixed border in need of color or interest, cluster some in a sunny corner of your deck or patio, or simply include one grass plant in a mixed-pot display as either backdrop or centerpiece.

So Easy to Grow

Sold already on their beauty and versatility? Well, there’s more good news—ornamental grasses are also easy to grow. Most do best in sunny or partially sunny areas, but otherwise adapt to a wide range of soil types. Some are drought-tolerant, thanks to their fibrous root systems. Others prefer damp ground, ideal if you have a soggy area that needs low-maintenance landscaping. As a general rule, these plants don’t need coddling, constant fertilizing or fussy grooming. They’re my kind of plant! And there’s more…

No pests or diseases. Grasses have the added virtue of being virtually pest- and disease-free. Pesky deer seem to leave ornamental grasses alone. The only visitors I’ve noticed are butterflies and the migrating birds that feed on the seedheads.

No special planting instructions. Ornamental grasses are best planted in late spring, along with perennials and annuals. Wait until danger of frost has passed and the ground is warm and workable. You may also plant ornamental grasses in the fall, which inspires more root growth than top growth, giving them a head start the following spring. Northern gardeners, however, should avoid fall planting of warm-season and borderline hardy varieties.

Either way, just pick a nice open spot, allowing ample elbow room (take into account predicted mature size) and organically rich soil. In other words, you may grow ornamental grasses anywhere you would put other perennial plants.

After planting, it’s a good idea to give the transplants a nice deep soaking. Add an inch or two of mulch around the base. The mulch not only looks nice but also keeps encroaching weeds at bay and helps conserve soil moisture. Other than that, grasses demand little for what you get in return.