The term "ornamental grass" applies not only to the true
grasses, but to closely related grass-like plants as well. Together, these
plants compose one of the largest groups of plants on the planet. And while most
everyone knows what lawn is, many gardeners are just now becoming familiar with
The basics of grass gardening are easy to understand. Some grasses creep or
spread, others stay in tight, well-mannered clumps. Some grasses are evergreen
and hold their foliage year-round; these are called cool-season grasses. Festucas, Kolerias, and many Sedges are considered cool-season grasses.
Cool-season grasses are usually early bloomers and are often selected for their
foliage color and texture.
By contrast, warm-season grasses are dormant in
winter and begin growing in the spring, flowering in summer or fall. With the
shortening days and cooler temperatures of autumn, many warm-season grasses put
on a fabulous display of fall color. Some of the warm-season grasses noted for
their spectacular fall color are Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis) and Switch
Grass (Panicum virgatum).
Once you know whether a grass is evergreen or deciduous (cool-season vs.
warm-season), clumping or spreading, make sure you are choosing a grass that
thrives in your climate and soil. Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima), for
instance, thrives in hot deserts and heavy clay soils, which would not support
other grasses. Another common mistake made by gardeners unfamiliar with grasses
is to underestimate their potential size. A four-inch pot of Maiden Grass (Miscanthus
sinensis ‘Gracillimus’) could grow four feet high and as wide in one season! To
avoid crowding, give large varieties plenty of room, or choose compact forms for
Use ornamental grasses the way you would use any other perennial, singularly for
accent, or in groups for massing. In the shade, for flowering accent, try Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Korean Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis
brachytricha), or any of the Hair Grass (Deschampsia). For a tall,
bold-flowering accent, try Plume Grass (Erianthus ravennae) or Maiden Grass (Miscanthus
sinensis ‘Gracillimus’). In a perennial border, try any of the Fountain grasses
(Pennisetum) or the always dependable Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis
acutiflora stricta). For foliage accent, try the Blue Fescue (Festuca ‘Elijah
Blue’) or the copper-colored Carex comans ‘Bronze.’ With so many grasses to
choose from, why not put an ornamental Grass in your garden this season?
Plant grasses in early spring as soon as you can work the soil. Mulch right
after planting. Water at least once a week to establish the new plants.
Fertilize rarely or never; most grasses grow well in ordinary garden soil, and
feeding will only leave them over-lush and limp.
Remove old stalks and foliage in late winter or early spring to make room for
new growth. Use hedge shears or loppers.
Large clumps of grasses in open areas can be left alone for decades. There is no
need to divide established grasses except when they are old, overgrown, or
crowded, or when you want to keep them within the bounds of your design.
(grasses may also benefit from being divided and moved when a nearby shrub or
tree begins to cast too much shade.) After lifting and dividing a clump—in early
spring for most varieties—with a spade, ax, or saw, replant the healthiest
pieces and discard the dead center. Be sure to place aggressive spreaders where
you won’t need to worry about dividing them.