- Big bluestem
- Maiden grass
- Zebra grass
- Purple silver grass
- Purple fountain grass
- Ornamental millet
- Blue oat grass
- Northern sea oats
- Black mondo
- Blue fescue
- Golden Hakone
- Japanese blood grass
What Makes These Types of Grasses “Ornamental”?
These grasses are dubbed “ornamental” for two excellent reasons:
- Ornamental grass isn’t walked on, thus it doesn’t need to be trimmed.
- One decorative grass plant is lovely.
Ornamental grass differs from “lawn” grass. Ornamental grass differs from the “grass” many of us have grudgingly mowed since childhood. The later grass provides a homogeneous walking surface in the yard. Ornamental grass, however, should not be mowed, uniform, or walked on.
Functional grass looks like negative space. The yard’s actors—flowers, bushes, trees, hardscape, etc.—perform on its stage. The yard’s performers include ornamental grass. Ornamental grass serves as a “ornament.”
Ornamental grass is used in landscape design the way you use flowers, shrubs, and trees. It’s often mixed with such plants to fill flower beds, creating diversity in terms of form and texture. When composing such beds, it’s best to layer the plants, placing the tallest in the back, the shortest in the front, and the rest in the middle. For this reason, we need to categorize ornamental grasses in terms of their height, as follows (all should be grown in full sun unless otherwise stated).
Tall Varieties of Ornamental Grasses
Fall and winter landscapes need tall decorative grass. Plumegrass (Erianthus ravennae) grows in USDA zones 4–9. Its cluster is 3–4 feet wide and 8–12 feet tall. This delicate shrub adds elegance to the harsh winter environment with its long, slender shafts and fluffy coiffures. Plumegrass may be a centerpiece because of its height.
Andropogon gerardi Indian Warrior giant bluestem grass grows in zones 3–9. Typical clumps are 5 feet tall and 2 feet broad. Summer turns the leaves crimson from green. Fall turns it reddish-purple. Red flowers.
Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus) is a fine choice in zones 5 to 9 for a tall, drought-tolerant ornamental grass, as it reaches as much as 7 feet in height, with a spread a bit less than that. Maiden grass bears coppery tassels as seed-heads in early fall, eventually turning silvery and adorning the plant as a “plume.” Don’t cut the clump’s stems back until after the bleakness of winter passes, since the graceful stems and puffy plumes provide visual interest on an otherwise barren December-February landscape.
It’s mainly late in the season that Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus provides much of a display (after it blooms). If you’re looking for a plant that offers more to look at earlier in the year, try Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus (zones 5 to 9). The “zebra” markings on its leaves provide plenty of visual interest even before it flowers.
Nor are these the only types of Miscanthus sinensis, a species commonly called “silver grass.” Purple silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis Purpurascens) measures 5 feet tall by 3 feet wide and is suited to zones 4 to 9. Its green summer foliage becomes reddish in fall. The seed-heads are mauve-colored.
Medium-Sized Varieties of Ornamental Grasses
Purple fountain grass is tropical. If you have tough winters, consider it as an annual. It grows 3–5 feet tall and 2–4 feet wide. Its purple flower spikes produce fluffy, crimson seedheads. Burgundy prickly foliage.
Another type of Pennisetum treated in the North as an annual is Pennisetum glaucum. A popular cultivar is Purple Majesty. If the common name of “millet” for the species sounds familiar, that’s because millet seed is often part of bird-food mixes. Purple Majesty is so-called for its very dark foliage and cattail-like seed-heads. It tolerates a little shade, but be sure to grow it in full sun to achieve maximum darkness. It reaches 3 to 5 feet tall.
Blue oat grass is a mounding, cool-season ornamental grass suitable for zones 4 to 8. Known botanically as Helictotrichon sempervirens, deer tend to leave this plant alone. This ornamental grass attains a height of 2 to 3 feet tall, with a similar spread. It tolerates some shade, but grow it in full sun (and well-drained soil) if you wish to enjoy the signature blue hues of its foliage to the fullest. The plant also produces spiky, dark flowers with a bluish tint in summer that turn harvest gold in autumn.
Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is an ornamental grass that grows 2 to 3 feet high in loose clumps of green foliage. Its name comes from its seed pods, which look like oats. This deer-resistant ornamental grass is cold-hardy to zone 5. Even after its leaves have dried and died, it provides visual interest to the winter landscape.
Short Varieties of Ornamental Grasses
Deer-resistant lilyturf (Liriope spicata) is shorter. Lilyturf, a perennial, grows to approximately a foot in zones 4–10. Lilyturf loves water and well-drained soil. Best results under partial shade and compost-rich soil. This ornamental grass features a spiky white-to-lavender bloom. Autumn brings black berries. Since it’s invasive, confine this plant.
Likewise, black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens) isn’t a true grass, but it functions in landscaping as if it were. Also like liriope, it can be invasive. Black mondo reaches 6 inches in height. The striking color of this zone-6-to-9 plant combines well with plants that bear golden or chartreuse leaves. It can take some shade. Carex Spark Plug is another impostor (it’s a type of sedge) that nonetheless plays the “shorty” role well, reaching only about a foot in height. It is a shade plant.
Blue fescue (Festuca glauca Elijah Blue) is a 1-foot-by-1-foot ornamental grass planted in zones 4–8. This drought-tolerant, clumping ornamental grass is popular because its blue leaves complements silvery plants like lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina). The pincushion-like plant has blue pins. Cut foliage in early spring like maiden grass. Divide it every couple years to regenerate.
If you prefer your blades to be gold-colored, try golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra Aureola). It can be tricky to achieve the best coloration with this plant, but it will often turn a wonderfully warm golden color when grown in shade. It also offers wispy seed-heads in fall that add further interest.
Standing at 12 to 18 inches high at maturity is Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica var. rubra), which can be grown in zones 5 to 9. Plant it in full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil. Drought-tolerant once established it bears reddish blades. The species plant is highly invasive, but varieties such as rubra are tamer, although you still must watch out that they don’t revert to the tendencies of their species.
How to Trim Ornamental Grass
After becoming brown, ornamental grasses require a trim, as most people know. Just when.
While tidy folks may prefer to trim ornamental grass at the end of autumn to give the landscape that “clean-cut” look before winter sets in, others prefer to do it in spring. Winter interest is one of the main excuses for growing ornamental grass, and you lose that if you trim in fall. Just make sure that, when spring does come, you cut the plant back early enough to get the old growth out of the way before the new growth emerges. Otherwise, you’ll be worried about mistakenly trimming the new shoots, since they’ll be right in your way as you attempt to remove dead stalks.
So much for what might be considered the “when” part of the question. But the “how” is worth considering, too to avoid making a mess when you trim ornamental grass. Otherwise, your garden will end up looking like a barbershop floor, after a customer has just left. To avoid this mess, tie the dead stalks up into a bundle before you make your cuts. That way, after the cutting is done, you mainly have just one object to pick up and move, rather than all of the individual stalks.
Low-Care Landscaping With Ornamental Grass and Mulch
Mulch attractive grass whether it’s with shrubs, trees, and flowers or alone. Mulch and attractive grass save yard care. For tiny plots, this is possible. Lawn care extends beyond mowing. Other tasks include:
What is the best low maintenance ornamental grass?
9 Best Drought-Tolerant Ornamental Grasses
- Elijah blue fescue (Festuca glauca)
- Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
- Leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii)
- Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)
- Panic grass (Panicum virgatum)
- Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra)
- Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’)
What is the shortest ornamental grass?
Mondo grass. Mondo grass is bright green to deep crimson. It’s a low-growing ornamental grass. Some dwarf versions are 4 to 6 inches tall.
Are there dwarf ornamental grasses?
As a dwarf, rather than miniature, fountain grass, “Hameln” can grow up to 36” tall. The fine, green foliage has buff-colored seed heads in summer that turns rust-colored in fall. It prefers full sun, but will tolerate part sun. “Hameln” will also do well in large containers.
What ornamental grass doesn’t flop?
Several attractive grasses grow erect all year. Maidengrass (Miscanthus), 5-6 ft. Japanese silvergrass, variegated (Miscanthus), 5-7 feet tall.
What ornamental grass doesn’t need to be cut back?
First, blue fescue, blue oat grass, and most sedges (Carex spp.) are evergreen. Evergreens don’t require trimming.
What is the easiest ornamental grass to grow?
Pink muhly grass is one of the simplest decorative grasses. This three-foot plant is attractive, particularly in late summer. Deep green leaves yield fluffy pink blossoms as the season ends.