Let’s Talk Ornamental Grasses!
Let’s talk about grasses. Not your lawn though (you can get rid of that). I’m talking ornamental grasses! There are so many perks to utilizing them in the landscape! They’re easy to grow, long-lived, and super hardy. They’re also very resistant to hungry herbivores, namely deer and rabbits. Talk about low-maintenance and worry-free! They come in all sorts of sizes, from giant maiden grasses that reach 8′ tall, to Little Bunny fountain grasses that hover around a foot tall. And more importantly, they provide unique textures that shrubs and perennials don’t have.
Grasses are monocots, so they have a different biological structure than most other garden plants. This is why they stand out in the garden! Their foliage and flower bring vertical accent and the design concepts of line and motion to the garden. I love seeing grasses sway in the wind, it’s very relaxing!
Most grasses do best full sun, although some will tolerate part-sun. There are also a few shade happy grasses. Most appreciate well-drained soil, with some being tolerant of drought once established (a great things to bear in mind with this year being so dry!). Some grasses will also tolerate brief periods of flooding, clay, road salt, and high-winds. Grasses are tough – and yet very beautiful.
Think beyond what I call basic “bushes ‘n mulch” thinking. Utilizing more ornamental grasses is a good way to start!
The three grasses I see planted the most are Maiden Grasses (Miscanthus sinensis), Karl Foerster Grass (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’) and Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuriodes). One of the most popular maiden grass I see is Zebra Grass, which has gold bands across the green foliage. It’s beautiful, but I recommend the new cultivar ‘Bandwidth’ which is a little smaller and sterile – so no invasive spread from Bandwidth! Other great sterile cultivars are ‘Scout’, ‘Cabaret’, and Giant Maiden Grass (Miscanthus x giganteus).
‘Karl Foerster’ is a cultivar of Feather Reed grass (Calamagrostis sp.). It’s terrific! It was the first ornamental grass to win the Perennial Plant of the Year award, in 2001. This stiff, upright grass matures between 3-4 feet high, making it a great ornamental grass to use in foundational plantings. The flowers (called inflorescens or plumes) are what really gives this plant its beauty. It’s also a cool season grass which means it wakes up earlier than most other ornamental grasses.
Fountain grasses (Pennisetum alopecuriodes) are named after their arching habit which are fountain-esque (that’s a word, right?). Every garden should have a fountain grass! Their plumes, which come on in late summer, make them even grander. The most popular cultivar might be Purple Fountain Grass which has purple foliage and plumes, but note that it is an annual here in western PA. The green varieties are perennial, and you know what, they’re just as stellar! We often carry the cultivars “Hameln”, “Piglet” and “Little Bunny”, all of which are lower than waist height.
This only scratches the surface on grasses though.
The above grasses are great additions to the landscape but let me tell you about my three favorite grasses, which I think are even better. My favorites are Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), Little Bluestem (Schizachrium scopularium), and Prairie Dropseed (Heterlopsis sporobulus).
Switch Grass is a medium to large sized ornamental grass, like maiden grass, although its plume structure is more light and airy. Unlike maiden grass, switch grass is a native and contributes to our local ecosystems. I have the cultivar ‘Northwind’, which was planted and well established before I moved into my current home. It baked next to the driveway all summer long, requiring no supplemental water, and held up like a champ! This grass can also tolerate moderately wetter soils, and even brief periods of flooding. Switchgrass are an excellent plant for near the street as they’re moderately salt tolerant too.
There are many cultivated varieties of switch grass. Many are blue, like ‘Dallas Blues’ and ‘Heavy Metal.’ Others have red tinges to the foliage, such as “Shenandoah” and Proven Winners Prairie Winds® cultivar “Apache Rose.” Some open up gracefully by the end of summer, and others, such as my “Northwind” are very stiff. I left the dried foliage on my ‘Northwind’ through the winter and it never flopped!
Little Bluestem is a stiff, upright native grass that offers beautiful blue foliage spring through summer and stunning red-orange tones in fall. Like switchgrass, Little Bluestem is dry and heat tolerant, and moderately salt tolerant. This is a good native substitute for ‘Karl Foerester.’
Prairie Dropseed, another native grass, has a graceful, arching habit with airy plumes. A long-lived and tough-as-nails plant, prairie dropseed will need very little (if any) supplemental water once established. I planted several in my garden this year and I’m excited to see them grow and establish!
These three grasses are host plants for several species of skipper butterflies. How cool is that!? You can help butterflies with more than just milkweed! Birds also like the seeds!
For further information on my three favorite grasses, check out these links!
People get scared with the word “maintenance.” But don’t you worry, grasses only need one yearly maintenance item (outside of any necessary watering). Just one. And it’s easy.
The dead foliage just needs chopped off in spring.
Leave the dried foliage through the winter as an ornamental aspect. This also gives insects, such as pollinators and firefly larvae, space to safely hibernate during the winter. The seedheads will also provide food for birds. As soon as you notice green growth emerging from the crown of the plant in mid-spring, you can cut back and toss the dead foliage away. If you can place the clippings somewhere in the back yard, please do so; birds love to make nests using grass foliage!
Fellow employee Jess gives this recommendation on cutting your grasses back: If it’s a variety that’s taller than 3 feet, cut it back to 3-4 inches from the ground. If it’s a variety that’s shorter than 3 feet, cut it back to an inch *from the crown* – so give it a bowl cut, not a flat top cut. A flat top cut might damage the crown of the latter so a proper trim will make it look like a little rounded hedgehog!
Occasionally folks will comment on how a yearly chop is a lot of work – while they are simultaneously mowing their lawn every week. Talk about irony! Lawn is the real high maintenance plant. Also of high maintenance are trimming back shrubs and trees that are too big for their spaces. Maintenance on an ornamental grass, however, is easy-peasy!
The great thing about many medium to larger grasses is that well-established plants can be divided into sections and replanted in other areas of the landscape. This also helps mitigate width – just be sure, however, to pick a grass that doesn’t get too big for your space. If you decide to divide your grass, do so when temperatures are cool – so early to mid-spring or early fall are best!
Grasses for Shade
While there aren’t a lot of shade grasses, Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra) is surely one of the best! We often stock the cultivars “All Gold” and “Aureola.” These are great chartreuse additions that brighten and enhance the shade garden!
While not true grasses, we also carry many sedges (Carex sp.) which act and grow like a grass in the landscape. There are many sedge species, and many varieties – and they come in greens, blues, green-and-whites, green-and-golds, and even bronzes!
Live life on the sedge!
Liriope or Lily Turf (Liriope spicata), another grass-like plant, does well in sun and shade and even produces purple or white flowers in late summer!
Grasses don’t appreciate permanently wet areas (though Switch grass is tolerant to a degree). If you have a stubborn marshy area, try a rush (Juncus sp.). Rushes aren’t true grasses but similar to sedges and Liriope, they function as one in the landscape. Some rushes are also semi-evergreen!
Plant Some Grasses!
Ornamental grasses are beautiful to grow and easy to care for. Even the roughest and smallest of yards ought to have some. Because of their dense root systems, they are also great for hillsides, so if all the room you have left is a stubborn hillside, try some grasses there. Each year we bring in additional varieties; so much that we’ve had to keep expanding our grass area to hold and display them all! You can now find them in the perennial area near our fountain display room!
Here are some other cool ones we usually carry; check them out:
Northern Sea Oats https://www.gardenia.net/plant/chasmanthium-latifolium-northern-sea-oats
Purple Moore Grass https://www.gardenia.net/plant/molinia-caerulea-subsp-arundinacea-moor-grass
I hope you’re excited for grasses now. Late summer and early autumn are peak season for grasses as its when they are looking their finest. Come check out our selection as we still have many to choose from!
They are truly great garden plants. Now go kick grass and take names!
Photo credits to North Creek Nurseries, Perennial Farm, and Proven Winners.