While standard lawn grasses are bred to be trimmed and mown into a flat carpet, they are far from the only option available if you want to grow grasses. Ornamental grasses are a popular option for anyone who wants vibrant, visually striking garden plants that are still easy to grow, hardy, and high performance at all times of the year. Once you get started growing ornamental grasses, you will find your gardening world opened up to a huge range of different possibilities, with grasses you never dreamed of.
But where do you get started with ornamental grasses? Well, we are here to help. Below, you will find an introduction (rights reserved) to a list of some of the most popular ornamental grasses out there. We will go through each of our favorites, explaining why we like it so much and some of the basics of how to care for each of the grasses types. If you think there is a good option we have missed, drop us a line via our email address! Read on below to find out everything you could ever need to know about getting started with ornamental grasses for your garden, from Zebra Grass to Karl Foerster grass.
Types of Ornamental Grasses
Before we start looking at individual species of grass, it is worth understanding the basic categories of ornamental grass. There are two main types of grass to be aware of: spreading grasses and clumping grasses. Clumpers form relatively short mounds of grass, remaining in a fairly small space, while spreaders grow taller and more dramatic, and require a bit more space, as you might expect from the name. It is worth checking what type of grass you are buying before you add it to your shopping cart, and if you need to email an expert in order to determine what you are dealing with, then there are plenty of advice communities you can find if you are willing to share your email address (rights reserved).
Zebra Grass (Miscanthus Sinensis) is a popular tall ornamental grass, growing up to 5 feet tall if left untrimmed. Its tall, thin leaves and stems grow with clear stripes, green and pale yellow in color, leading it to also be known by the alternative name Porcupine Grass by some. It grows during spring and summer and can spread into clumps of about 5 feet across, even if pruned during its growing season.
This grass is a great choice if you have a large garden, as its maximum height of 5 feet tall can dominate a smaller garden. It grows best in full sun, and good access to the sun will accentuate the stripes of color that have earned it the name Zebra Grass. This is an easy to grow species of grass, thriving in any type of soil from clay or loam to chalk or sand. It really is not picky about its environment, as long as it has access to full sun and plenty of space. It can overhang and crowd out any smaller flowers planted next to it, however, so you may want to be careful when growing Zebra Grass at home.
Egyptian Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is an exotic ornamental grass species that stands out in any garden thanks to its long stems and vibrant green tufts at the top. This grass likes moist soil and thrives in water gardens as long as it does not encounter freezing temperatures, and grows best in full sun.
Purple Fountain Grass
Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) is one of the most popular ornamental grass species around at the moment, thanks to its fluffy, feathery leaves, rich purple-red color, and feather-like flowers. This is a striking looking grass that looks great from a distance and up close, and it grows in large enough clumps (2 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide) to provide an eye-catching accent to any garden.
This is a relatively low maintenance grass, as long as it is cut back in late fall, and it is surprisingly drought resistant once properly established. Plant your Purple Fountain Grass in well-drained soil in either full sun or part shade, and prepare for spectacular color and feathery flowers in the late summer and early fall.
Pink Muhly Grass
Also known as Sweetgrass, Gulf Muhlygrass, Hairawn Muhly, or Mist Grass, the popular Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is an attractive looking grass that bursts into striking pink feathery flowering plumes during fall and winter. It might not look like much in smaller clumps, but once it has had a while to spread and get established, this grass can offer a burst of delightful color in the winter months. Pink Muhly Grass thrives in full sun to part shade conditions and grows best in well-drained soil that is sandy or rocky.
Japanese Blood Grass
As you might guess from the name, Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica) is a vibrant red grass that looks very striking. It is also sometimes known by the name Cogon Grass, and it grows best in damp, rich soil in hot weather with access to full sun.
It is worth noting that despite its preferred environment, you may find that you can only buy this grass in colder areas. This is because Japanese Blood Grass is classified as an invasive species, and is illegal to grow without a permit. It is easier to grow this plant in a controlled manner in colder weather, which is why it is sometimes available in cooler regions – in warmer regions, it simply grows too well to be safe and responsible for growing at home!
Mexican Feather Grass
A tall, feathery, attractive grass, Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima) is an increasingly popular species of grass for anyone who wants something a couple of feet tall that will sway in even the gentlest of breezes. This is a very rapidly spreading grass and is often classified as invasive. If not kept very carefully contained, it will start to spread outside your garden during the summer months and can grow in any area with good sun access, from neighboring garden areas to cracks in the sidewalk.
Mexican Feather Grass is a great option for dry conditions and gardens that receive full sun or part shade. It is easy going when it comes to soil, too, happily surviving in sand, clay, acid, loamy, or well-drained soils alike. Just be careful to keep it contained!
Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca) is one of the lowest types of ornamental grasses out there. This isn’t going to grow several feet tall, and in fact, some species of fescue grass are grown as lawns, like the popular clumping red fescue. Confusingly, most of the types of fescue used to turf lawns are known as “tall fescues,” a detail which makes it even harder to work out what is going on.
This type of grass is considered a low growing ornamental grass, ideal for using as decorative ground cover, border detailing, or edging. Blue Fescue grows best in full sun and does not do so well with shade. It is an ideal summer blue grasses, thriving in dry conditions, and full sun with minimal maintenance needed.
Black Mondo Grass
Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus) is a low growing spreader grass that is ideal for ground cover. Its blackish leaves (actually a dark greenish-purple) only grow to about 8 inches in height, making it a good choice for smaller gardens and pairing with other plants. It grows best in part shade to full sun and thrives in well-drained, moist soil with a little acidity. This is one of the more striking low spreading grasses out there, offering something a little more exciting than a standard lawn grass without growing too large for your garden.
Japanese Forest Grass
Popular for its colorful leaves and attractive clumping growth, Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra) is a striking looking grass imported from the Hakone area of Japan. There are several different varieties of Japanese Forest Grass, with different colors of leaves available from different cultivars. Most have some combination of green and gold leaves, with slender stems that look a lot like small bamboo stems.
This is a type of grass that likes to be grown in part shade and does not cope so well with summer heat and dry weather. In higher temperatures, Japanese Forest Grass of all varieties will need regular watering – weekly, at the very least! As long as your garden has areas of shade and moist soil with good drainage, though, this type of grass can look stunning, particularly when planted alongside bluegrasses.
Blue Oat Grass
Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervivens) is a tall grass, growing to a maximum of 6 feet in height and 3 feet in width. It grows in beautiful fountains of silvery-blue leaves, topped with light beige fluffy domes. This grass grows best in full sun with weekly watering, but after it is well established, it is a sturdy, drought-resistant option that is great for rock gardens. Blue Oat Grass prefers well-drained soil with medium moisture.
New Zealand Flax
An increasingly popular option for both residential and commercial planting, New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax) offers broad, sturdy leaves with a deep reddish-purple color and not much in the way of flowers to distract from these rich, bronzed leaves. This grass can grow as high as 5 feet and as wide as 4 feet.
This is not one of the easiest grasses to grow, as the clumps can get tangled up and hard to manage if not carefully maintained. Every few years, your New Zealand Flax will require declumping, with some of the clusters being separated and planted elsewhere. New Zealand Flax thrives in full sun to part shade and is happiest in rich, moist soil with good drainage.
Bamboo (Bambusa sp. or Phyllostachys sp.) is one of the largest members of the grass family, despite its name making no indication of that. This is a tall, fast-growing, and fast-spreading grass, and it requires regular watering early in its life in order to develop a healthy, deep root system that can support the plant later in life.
Bamboo survives best in warm climates, particularly when planted in a part shade environment, but there are a number of varieties that grow well in colder climates too. In particularly cold environments, most bamboo dies back during the winter, but the roots will survive and start to grow again in the spring. By late summer, your bamboo will be back to its former glory and color, as long as you are growing it in loose, slightly acid soil with good drainage.
These are just 12 of our favorite popular ornamental grasses, and there are many other great options out there. If there are any you think we have missed, why not let us know via our email address? The world of decorative grass is a huge one, and there is sure to be more out there than anyone hobbyist can hope to encounter.
The most important thing to bear in mind when you are trying to choose ornamental grasses for your garden is the environment in which you will be growing. Do you live in an area with cold winters or one where the summers are hot and dry? Is your garden exposed to full sun for most of the year, or is it mostly shady? These details will help you narrow down the field, giving you a much less overwhelming pool of grasses to pick from when decorating your garden.