How do I Choose the Best Ornamental Landscaping Grasses?

Deborah Walker

From Asian-inspired gardens accented with towering bamboo to naturalized gardens with native plants, ornamental landscaping grasses can add interest and texture to any yard. In order to make the best choice, you may want to take a little time to learn about ornamental grasses in general. Some things to consider are the differences between warm and cool varieties of grass and the extremes of temperature in your area. Think about the location in which you want to plant the grass and whether you want the grass to be a ground cover, an accent to other plants, or to act as a screen. Other details to consider include the color, blade type, and the form the grass takes as it grows.

Pampas grass is a common warm season ornamental grass.
Pampas grass is a common warm season ornamental grass.

Landscaping grasses are classified as warm season or cool season. Warm season grass is dormant during the winter and waits until the ground is warm before actively growing again. This means that warm season grass may not green up until mid-to-late spring. Warm varieties require less watering and upkeep overall; some species are drought tolerant and suitable for xeriscaping. Keep in mind that warm grasses will not add much to the visual appeal of the garden for several months of the year. Some examples of warm season landscape grasses are fountain grass, pampas grass, and prairie cord grass.

Fescue grass can withstand drought.
Fescue grass can withstand drought.

Cool season grasses prefer lower temperatures. They generally begin their active growing seasons earlier in the spring. In areas with mild winters, this type of ornamental grass may be evergreen. During warm weather, they do need quite a bit of watering to stay green; some plants can even grow in water-logged areas. These varieties are prone to wilting in the center during warm weather, but dividing the plant helps avoid this problem. Tufted hair grass, blue oat grass, and fescues are cool season landscaping grasses.

Now that you have an overall understanding of warm and cool season plants, find out what U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone you live in. Not every grass will survive extreme weather conditions. Most ornamental landscaping grasses prefer zones 4 through 9, although there are some that will tolerate the coldest temperatures of zones 2 and 3, as well as the hottest temperatures of zones 10-11.

The next consideration is whether you want the grass to be a ground cover, an accent, or to work as a screen. Running or creeping ornamental landscaping grasses, such as ribbon grass and Japanese blood grass, may be a good choice for ground cover. Running grass can be very invasive if not kept in check. Clumping grass types, such as golden sedge or switch grass, may be a better choice if you want a non-aggressive, slow-growing accent plant. Blue Indian grass or Great Basin wild rye are good options for a screen.

Ornamental landscaping grasses may be green, variegated, silver, blue, red, or copper. They can have narrow, willowy blades like the Japanese rush or plumes as the variegated feather reed grass does. Some types grow in an arched shape just as the little bluestem species or be dense and fan-shaped as in the case of bronze veil tufted hair grass. Landscaping grasses have so many different growing preferences, appearances, and other individual characteristics that you are almost sure to find a species that suits your needs.

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