Ornamental Grass and Their Uses in the Garden

What is an ornamental grass? This label broadly covers the true grasses and grass-like plants that are used for ornamental purposes. There exist over 7000 species of grasses from those grasses that historically feed the world to those we incorporate in our landscapes.

The many benefits of grasses in the garden are due to their horticultural and physical characteristics. Those characteristics include, size and form, textures, color, growth habit, and site location preferences.

Their wide range of sizes from a few inches to over twenty- five feet in height allow them to fit almost every landscape design criteria. Using a rather tall grass such as Miscanthus giganteus (Giant Chinese Silver Grass); a ten to twelve foot screen can be accomplished rather well. This screen may be seasonal with an annual pruning to the ground in late winter/early spring. As the season continues and the grass grows the buer will change from three to four feet to six to eight feet and then to ten to twelve feet by late July or August.

silver grass.jpgChinese Silver GrassMiscanthus giganteus

Plant forms, although somewhat similar, range from very vertical to arching and weeping forms. The physical movement with the wind blowing adds to the visual interest and the sound of the foliage rustling can help mask other unwanted noises. Grasses seem to always be changing in the landscape and are rarely stagnant throughout the year. Different types of grasses work well together and give a pleasing mix of heights, textures and colors. Many other combinations with evergreens like hollies, junipers, and chamaecyparis really can create dramatic contrast.

Grass textures (both visual and tactile) range from coarse to fine and rough to smooth or soft. Grasses offer that loose and flowing feeling with visually soft thin foliage as well as those with course and wide (corn-like) textured appearance. Many grasses make you want to reach out and touch them to feel that soft and smooth foliage like the prairie dropseed grass (Sporobolus heterolepis). Be careful though many are not soft to the touch and are serrated on the leaf margins and may cause small cuts to your skin if handled the wrong way such as pampas grass (Cotaderia selloana) and many miscanthus varieties. The seed heads or plumes that adorn the tops of many grasses near the end of the season are also a wonderful source of texture and interest that will last through the winter months. Probably one of the best additional features grasses offer.

The wide range of colors available in ornamental grasses is another reason these plants are widely incorporated into today’s landscapes. Colors from all shades of green to bronze and purples are available with grasses. The variegated varieties either striped lengthwise or banded across the leaf blade add a striking contrast in the garden and easily demand your attention. Many grasses also offer a fall season color change that attracts additional attention at that time of year.

chinese grass.jpg

Hairawn Muly, Muhlenbergia capillaris

The different growth habits of spreading and creeping types to bunch and clumping forms add to the diversity of uses in the garden. They can be used as ground covers, large masses as well as small groupings or as an accent plant within a group of other plant types.

While most grasses fit into a sunny site rather than a shady one, there are still those that can be used in shaded woodland settings nicely. You will find that most grasses prefer a full sun environment and will include the broadest range of sizes available. The grasses that tolerate or prefer shade of a woodland setting are smaller in stature, such as most sedges and northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).

Their adaptation to many soil types and dry or wet site conditions are also reasons to use ornamental grasses for solutions to these sometimes difficult design criteria. They can serve to reduce erosion and hold slopes as well as slow down and reduce stormwater runoff that can endanger streams and water quality.

The use of outdoor lighting highlighting grasses will add another level of enjoyment and dramatic impact for the evening landscape.


Think outside the box for screen and accent plants. If you are thinking low maintenance and care for your landscape, ornamental grasses work well. Hopefully when that next design project comes around you will include these very versatile plants in your landscape.

-Jim Westman

Book suggestions:

  • The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, Author: Rick Darke
  • Ornamental Grasses,
    Better Homes And Gardens, Step-By-Step Successful Gardening,
    Author: Peter Loewer

Copied from The Sandhills Horticultural Society’s the “Blooming News” Vol. 11, No. 4 Winter 2016

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