Ornamental Grasses: Selection, Design Ideas and Care

Ornamental grass known as fountain grass in a lush shrub border.
My Garden Life
August 14, 2023
Table of Contents

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.

A large clump of pampas grass growing along a paved pathway.

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.

A background of medium size ornamental grass with pots of smaller grass and flowering annuals in the foreground.

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.

Hakone Japanese forest grass grows along a flagstone pathway through a garden mix of small shrubs and flowering 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.

A dense planting of small blue fescue grass creates a silvery groundcover effect in the foreground of a mixed shrub border.

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.

Small ornamental grasses growing in a gravel garden with a granite block wall in the background.

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. 

A woman is holding a fall flower arrangement made from dried flowers and ornamental grasses.

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)

Hare’s Tail (Lagurus ovatus)

Ornamental grass grown for its furry soft, white oval “bunny tail” plumes atop light green, grass-like arching foliage. Also known as Rabbit Tail Grass and Bunny Tail Grass. It loves the sun and is heat and drought tolerant once established. Makes an excellent cut flower for fresh or dried arrangements. Most showy when planted in groups.
Blue Oat Grass ‘Sapphire’ (Helictotrichon sempervirens)

Blue Oat Grass ‘Sapphire’ (Helictotrichon sempervirens)

Attractive bright sapphire foliage resembles a tall Fescue. Blue Oat Grass grows in just about any type of soil and once established is very drought tolerant. Excellent for contrast with bright-flowered plants or create a cool look by planting with purple, white or pastel flowers. Very effective planted in masses, and makes a good groundcover for a large area.
Woodrush (Luzula species)

Woodrush (Luzula species)

Luzula are evergreen perennials, resembling grass or rushes with flat, linear leaves and tiny clusters of flowers appearing in spring or summer. The dense foliage is great for massed planting and very effective for keeping an area covered and weed free. Very easy to grow in just about any type of soil or light level from full sun to full shade. An excellent groundcover for erosion control on steep banks and rough slopes.
Japanese Blood Grass ‘Red Baron’ (Imperata cylindrica)

Japanese Blood Grass ‘Red Baron’ (Imperata cylindrica)

One of the most colorful ornamental grasses available and a great way to add rich color to the garden for the entire season without flowers. The blades are a blend of green transitioning to red at the leaf ends. The color becomes more intensely red in late summer and autumn. Leave the plant standing through the winter to provide landscape interest as well as cover for small mammals. A nice choice for larger patio containers.
Feather Grass ‘Pony Tails’ (Stipa tenuissima)

Feather Grass ‘Pony Tails’ (Stipa tenuissima)

Feather grass literally brings a landscape to life. The fine, almost hair-like foliage reacts to the slightest breeze, creating soft rustling sounds and adding movement to the landscape. Use it to create a textural balance planted among more rigid, coarse plants such as junipers and pines. A good choice for mixed borders or along a fence or foundation. Provides dramatic color and form to autumn and winter landscapes and the dry foliage will supply wonderful nesting material for birds and other wildlife in the spring.
Hakone Grass, Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra)

Hakone Grass, Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra)

Hakonechloa’s unique, fluid form brings a relaxed elegance to the landscape. This plant originates in Japan, where it grows in woodland areas or in shaded niches among the mountain cliffs. A natural choice when the feel of a Japanese garden is desired. Mix Hakonechloa with other shade-loving foliage plants such as Hosta, Hellebore, and Polygonatum to create interesting textural contrast in areas where the light levels are too low for blooming plants to thrive.

Medium Ornamental Grasses – Height 2-3’

Chinese Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)

Chinese Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)

Fountain grass is a splendid choice for adding soft texture to the landscape. The dense clump of gracefully arching foliage produces an abundance of showy, purplish-pink flower plumes in late summer. A fast-grower and carefree in almost any situation with well-drained soil. The flower heads make interesting additions to cut flower arrangements and can be dried for use in crafts.
Red Fountain Grass ‘Rubrum’ (Pennisetum setaceum)

Red Fountain Grass ‘Rubrum’ (Pennisetum setaceum)

Gracefully arching red foliage is a source of all-season color and soft texture in the landscape. The dark red flower heads make interesting additions to cut flower arrangements and can be dried for use in crafts. A fast grower in just about any situation with well-drained soil. Leave plant through the winter. The dry foliage adds interest to the winter landscape and will provide nesting material for birds in the spring.
Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa)

Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa)

Tufted Hair Grass forms tidy clumps with panicles that form a wispy cloud above the foliage. The narrow leaf blades and arching panicles add an element of movement and sound as the wind rustles through the foliage. This is one of the earliest grasses to bloom and it is one of the few that tolerates shade. Very effective planted in masses, and makes a good groundcover for a large area.
Narrow-leaved Reed Grass (Calamagrostis stricta)

Narrow-leaved Reed Grass (Calamagrostis stricta)

A lovely ornamental grass that is easy to grow. Gracefully arching, bright green foliage spreads quickly in moist soil. Feathery wheat-colored flower plumes bloom over a long season. The graceful lines add interest to the winter landscape so don’t worry about cutting back until spring. Birds will appreciate the dry foliage for use as nesting material in the spring also.
Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)

Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)

Native to central and eastern United States and Mexico. Stunning, fine-textured grass with airy panicles of delicate, pink flowers. Lends a light, airy appearance to the garden. Excellent for use in difficult spots where nothing else can survive. Effective for naturalized areas, mass plantings and mixed borders. Creates a pivotal accent point in any garden.
Variegated Moor Grass ‘Variegata’ (Molinia caerulea)

Variegated Moor Grass ‘Variegata’ (Molinia caerulea)

Moor Grass is incredibly easy to grow and requires no maintenance other than cutting away the dead grass each spring to make way for the new growth. A beautiful plant in the winter landscape; the dry foliage and flower heads add interest and the sound of the wind in the crisp foliage provides a lingering memory of summer. Excellent for mixed border plantings.

Tall Ornamental Grasses – Height 3’+

Canada Wild Rye ‘Icy Blue’ (Elymus canadensis)

Canada Wild Rye ‘Icy Blue’ (Elymus canadensis)

A fast growing grass with blue-green leaves and beautiful curving seedheads. The tough plants are salt tolerant, making them ideal for coastal locations. Provides dramatic color and form in the landscape. Use as a focal point in a border garden or plant in a mass for maximum color impact. Makes a good groundcover for a large area.
Hardy Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana)

Hardy Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana)

A truly magnificent specimen plant that has landscape appeal year-round. The graceful mound of grassy foliage is topped with feathery silver-gray plumes in summer that will persist all the way through the winter. The stalks can also be cut for use in dried arrangements indoors. Superb background plant or focal point for mixed borders.
Miscanthus, Ornamental Grass (Miscanthus species)

Miscanthus, Ornamental Grass (Miscanthus species)

The Miscanthus types of grasses offer a wide array of beautiful foliage colors, forms and textures. There is sure to be one for nearly any location or need. The dry foliage adds winter interest in the landscape and provides nesting material for birds in the spring. Extremely tolerant of difficult hot, dry locations. An excellent specimen, foundation, or border plant.
Variegated Giant Reed Grass (Arundo donax var. versicolor)

Variegated Giant Reed Grass (Arundo donax var. versicolor)

A clump-forming, evergreen grass. Its leaves display a brilliant, creamy white variegation. Produces feathery, reddish brown flower spikes that turn to white at maturity. Especially nice in waterside gardens. Superb backing plant for mixed borders. Great for privacy screening on decks or blocking unsightly views. Creates a pivotal accent point in any garden.
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

This is a North American native prairie grass that brings a relaxed, natural feel to any location. It grows in just about any type of soil, even clay or poor, infertile soils. It’s a good choice for challenging areas, such as a slopes or locations where high-maintenance plantings aren’t practical. Makes a dependable mixed border plant, especially suited as a tall background plant. Provides dramatic color and form to autumn and winter landscapes.
Feather Reed Grass ‘Karl Foerster’ (Calamagrostis x acutiflora)

Feather Reed Grass ‘Karl Foerster’ (Calamagrostis x acutiflora)

One of the best grasses available for heavy clay soil. This grass forms a tidy clump of foliage followed in early spring by the tall feathery plumes that inspired this plant’s common name, “Feather Reed Grass”. A very carefree choice for use in mixed borders, along fences and foundations, or grouped with other grasses for a natural effect. The graceful lines add interest to the winter landscape. Birds will appreciate the dry foliage for use as nesting material in the spring.

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.

Woman tamping down the soil surrounding a newly planted ornamental grass.

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. 
Growing ornamental grass in a pot-a variety of large bowl and cylinder shaped planters on a patio filled with different grasses and a small tree.

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.

Dividing an ornamental grass-a Carex morowii 'Ice Dancer' grass is removed from its nursery pot and placed on a tarp to be divided.

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.

Woman dividing an ornamental grass by cutting through the root ball.

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.  

Woman planting an ornamental grass that has just been divided from a larger plant. Hosta plants in the background.

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.  

Watering in a newly planted ornamental grass surrounded by hosta and a rustic fence in the background.

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.

A closeup of wispy dried blades of ornamental grass in a winter landscape.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Donna Hamme

    Beautiful pictures, however I really wish you could have included size and zone in your descriptions. Especially lacking the zone was really frustrating.

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Donna,
      To view the details for the individual plants in the “Ornamental Grass Selections”, just click on the image an individual grass. This will take you to a unique page for each grass variety that includes the USDA hardiness zone, height, and other growing tips.

      Reply

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