Ornamental Grasses for the Landscape

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Ornamental grasses are sometimes overlooked as plants that can add interest to the landscape. The foliage and flower plumes of ornamental grasses are what add interest to a landscape. Most ornamental grasses have arching foliage and several species have attractive foliage color. The foliage can provide seasonal interest with rich colors in the fall and winter.

Ornamental grasses can be used many ways in the landscape. Many species can stand alone but can also be attractive when several are place together in a group. Combining different types of ornamental grasses in a group can also make a nice attraction in your landscape. Some of the larger ornamental grasses work well as a screening plant for privacy. Ornamental grasses can also work well on slopes or eroded areas where other plants may struggle.

One of the biggest advantages of ornamental grasses is that they are low maintenance. The two important things to remember when selecting a location for ornamental grasses is that they need full sun and well-drained soils. Pruning is probably the biggest chore with ornamental grasses. Ornamental grasses are typically cut back in late winter before new growth begins. If not pruned, the old foliage left on the plant can delay new, spring growth by as much as 2 weeks.

Ornamental grasses usually do not need much fertilizer. Fertilizer can be applied in late spring when new growth begins to appear. A general fertilizer recommendation would be to use 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. For clump type grasses, use 1 to 1 1/2 cups per established plant. For ground cover types, use 2 to 3 pounds per 100 square feet.

Another advantage of ornamental grasses is that they are very durable plants. Ornamental grasses will tolerate heat and drought. Ornamental grasses also have little pest problems in that they are highly resistant to insects and diseases.

Ornamental grass species come in various sizes ranging from 10 to 15 feet while there are species that are considered dwarf plants. Ornamental grasses also have various foliage color and textures.

Here is a highlight of some ornamental grasses that are popular and can be utilized in the landscape:

  • Blue Fescue (Festuca glaucahas fine textured, blue-green foliage that works well for a ground cover in the landscape. This grass can be easily propagated by division.
  • Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensisis a popular grass in North Carolina with many varieties. It is hardy across all of North Carolina. This grass can easily get 10 feet tall. Maiden grass (‘Gracillimus’) has narrow leaves and is smaller in size. Zebra grass (‘Zebrinus’) has bands of yellow on the leaves. Silver Feather Grass (‘Silberfeder’) is a clumping grass with silvery flower plumes and grows 6 to 9 feet tall.
  • Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) has attractive, arching flower plumes. Foliage of fountain grass also has arching foliage that gets about 4 feet tall. There are types of fountain grass with purple foliage.
  • Muhley Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) with blue-green foliage and fine, feathery flower plumes. This grass gets up to 3 feet tall and flowers September to November. There is a pink muhley grass which has pink colored plumes.
  • Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) is probably one of the most well-known ornamental grasses and sometimes least liked due to its large size. Pampas grass is hardy up to zone 6 but can suffer some damage if temperatures hit single digits. Pampas grass is a larger grass being able to get as tall as 20 feet. This grass has a fountain-like appearance with large, silvery-white flower plumes in late summer to early autumn. The female plants are often sold in nurseries because they have showier flower plumes than male plants. There is pink pampas grass where the flower plumes have more of a rosy-pink color to them.

That is just a few of the many ornamental grasses that can be used in the landscape. With ornamental grass being low maintenance and typically pest free but yet providing a nice interest in the landscape or garden, they are a plant to not pass up.

Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.

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