Ornamental grasses are a gardener’s dream! They offer a perfect combination of dramatic form, low maintenance, and year-round interest, all available in a range of colors, sizes and textures. Grasses also add a dimension of sound and movement to the garden as the long, loose foliage shifts and rustles in the breeze.
Ways to Use Ornamental Grasses
Tall species of ornamental grass make a dramatic focal-point for large open areas. They’re a good option anywhere you might usually plant a shrub. Plant tall ornamental grasses around a patio to provide privacy and reduce street noise.
Medium height grasses are just right for a perennial garden where they add strong vertical lines and give the garden a lush, full appearance. They can be used along a house foundation, wall, or fence where you want something interesting and easy-care, without overwhelming the structure.
Small ornamental grasses are useful for planting in the foreground of a flower garden or shrub border. They’re also sized right for planting along a walkway or around a tree. You can grow them individually in a pot or use a small ornamental grass as the centerpiece of a container mixed with flowering annuals or perennials.
Grasses are ideal for planting near a high traffic area, such as along a pathway or at the corner of a house. Unlike more rigid plants, the blades are easily brushed aside if someone walks nearby. Grasses are also useful for camouflaging unsightly utility boxes while their fluid foliage still allows easy access for servicing.
Closely planted short ornamental grasses can be used to make a dense groundcover.
Ornamental grasses are popular for planting in gravel gardens. Most grasses develop deep root systems that help them to reach moisture even during drought conditions.
Any size of ornamental grass can be used on a slope to help prevent soil erosion. Grasses can be grouped or combined with other perennial flowering plants or shrubs.
Stumped on an attractive way to dress up a dull corner? Try layering a tall grass in the corner, then place a couple of medium grasses in the middle, and finish with smaller grasses in the foreground.
The seed head of a grass (known as an inflorescence) can be used in cut flower arrangements. Use them freshly cut or allow the stems to dry on the plant and harvest them for dried bouquets in the fall.
Ornamental Grass Selection
There are many species of ornamental grasses available. Most grasses prefer full sun, but be sure to check the plant tag as there are a few that prefer some shade. If you are specifically looking for a grass for a shady space consider Hakone Grass, Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra), Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), or Narrow-leaved Reed Grass (Calamagrostis stricta). How you intend to use your grass will usually dictate what size grass you’ll choose. Here are some popular options based on size:
Short Ornamental Grasses – Height 1-2’
Hare’s Tail (Lagurus ovatus)
Blue Oat Grass ‘Sapphire’ (Helictotrichon sempervirens)
Woodrush (Luzula species)
Japanese Blood Grass ‘Red Baron’ (Imperata cylindrica)
Feather Grass ‘Pony Tails’ (Stipa tenuissima)
Hakone Grass, Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra)
Medium Ornamental Grasses – Height 2-3’
Chinese Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
Red Fountain Grass ‘Rubrum’ (Pennisetum setaceum)
Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa)
Narrow-leaved Reed Grass (Calamagrostis stricta)
Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
Variegated Moor Grass ‘Variegata’ (Molinia caerulea)
Tall Ornamental Grasses – Height 3’+
Canada Wild Rye ‘Icy Blue’ (Elymus canadensis)
Hardy Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana)
Miscanthus, Ornamental Grass (Miscanthus species)
Variegated Giant Reed Grass (Arundo donax var. versicolor)
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Feather Reed Grass ‘Karl Foerster’ (Calamagrostis x acutiflora)
How to Plant an Ornamental Grass
Once established, ornamental grasses are sure to be one of the most carefree plants in your landscape. The best time to plant is in the spring but you can also plant perennial grasses in the fall. Here are the steps for planting an ornamental grass:
1. Choose a sunny to partially shaded location.
2. Dig a hole two or three inches larger than the root ball.
3. Set your plant in the hole making sure the top of the root ball (base of the plant) is level with the soil line. Add or remove soil from the hole until the plant is properly positioned.
4. Fill in soil around the plant and tamp down with your hands or a foot. Once the soil is filled to ground level then water your ornamental grass thoroughly. Depending on rainfall, you’ll want to water your transplanted grass occasionally for a couple of weeks to help it get settled in.
5. Mulch may be added to give your planting a tidy appearance and to help retain moisture during hot weather.
Growing Ornamental Grass in a Pot
All but the tallest grasses grow well in large pots or permanent planters. Use your choice of container to set the mood of a space.
- You can create a modern look with geometric shapes like a square or round bowl.
- Use a large, ornate urn to create a romantic, Victorian-era feeling.
- Plant grass in a rustic metal tub, terra cotta pot, or wooden planter for a natural, yet decorative look.
- Smaller grasses can be planted with colorful flowering annuals to give a single planter the appearance of a full garden. A perfect solution for anyone whose outdoor space is limited to a deck, balcony, or window box.
How to Divide an Ornamental Grass
Over time ornamental grasses spread and occupy more space. You may reach a point when you will need to divide your plant to maintain it at a size appropriate to its space. Also, some grasses tend to die out in the middle as new growth appears towards the outside edges. These lose some of their ornamental appeal as they start to look sparse. Digging and dividing them is a way to restore the beauty of a single, dense clump.
The best time to divide a grass is in late winter or early spring. It’s easy to see what you’re doing without the bulk of foliage and the plant will then fill out through the growing season. You should expect to divide your ornamental grass every three years to maintain its original size.
Steps for Dividing an Ornamental Grass
The steps for dividing an ornamental grass are simple. These instructions are appropriate whether you are starting with a new plant that you’d like to divide and create multiple smaller plants, or if you are lifting an existing plant to reduce its size.
1. Dig up your clump of grass or remove a new plant from its pot. To remove an existing plant, use a shovel cut all the way around the base of your plant, 2-3” away from where the foliage emerges. Insert the shovel into the ground and then use a lifting motion when the shovel is beneath the plant. You may need to repeat this process several times to free the root ball. Ornamental grasses have dense, fibrous roots that can take some work to dig up.
2. Shake as much loose soil from the roots as you can. This will help you salvage soil for when you replant your division, and it makes it easier to see what you’re doing as you work.
3. Cutting the root ball is easiest when using a large, serrated kitchen knife, pruning saw, or a gardening knife, although you can cut through the root ball with a shovel as well. You could even use a large handsaw if the root ball is too large for smaller hand tools.
4. With the roots fully exposed, pick a place to cut the clump in half. Cut until you have successfully cut through the root ball. If your plant is especially large, you can continue to cut the roots into smaller clumps, depending on how many plants you want.
5. Return a smaller clump back into the original hole. You’re likely to lose some soil after removing a large root ball so it’s a good idea to have a bag of garden soil on hand so you’ll be prepared to add soil if you don’t have enough to fill the hole level to the ground.
6. Fill in soil around the plant and tamp down with your hands or a foot. Bring the soil level to ground level then water your ornamental grass thoroughly. If you’re dividing your plant in the spring, depending on rainfall, you’ll want to water your transplanted grass occasionally for a couple of weeks to help it get settled in.
Ornamental Grass Fall Care
As fall approaches your ornamental grass will start to take on a golden-brown hue. Once the plant goes dormant for the winter you have two options. You can cut your grass down around 3-4” from the ground and no more maintenance is required for the year. Your other option is to leave the grass through the winter and cut it down in the early spring, before the new green growth emerges. Many people enjoy the added interest the dry grass brings to the winter landscape and the soft rustling sound of the wind blowing through the dry blades. Birds may also appreciate the available dry material for nest building in early spring.
What to Plant with Ornamental Grasses
You can create a wonderful contrast of colors and textures by surrounding your ornamental grasses with flowering annuals or perennials. Not sure what the difference is? Learn all about it in our article Know Your Plants – Annual vs. Perennial.