Ornamental Grasses in the Home Landscape

— Written By

Ornamental grasses are fast becoming a commonplace addition to landscape beds and along roadsides. Because of the graceful, arching foliage, colorful plumes, and many varieties that provide seasonal interest year-round, ornamental grasses can be used as a backdrop to accentuate a centerpiece plant; however, if plumes are colorful, they may also be used as centerpiece plants in any landscape. The relative low-maintenance and ease of establishment make ornamental grasses an excellent addition to the home garden. 

Pink Muhly Grass

Pink Muhly Grass
Jim Robbins CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Benefits of ornamental grasses

Aside from their attractiveness, there are many other benefits to ornamental grasses in the home landscape. Insect and disease pressure can be a limiting factor when considering certain plants for the Cape Fear Region. If you have trouble establishing plants because of soil or airborne plant diseases, ornamental grasses are an excellent choice. Many ornamental grasses are highly resistant to insect and disease pressure, and are tolerant to heat and drought, and can also withstand long periods of ground moisture. In fact, ornamental grasses are highly valuable if you have an area in your yard that stays wet for extended periods. Other than some general maintenance in the winter, ornamental grasses require very little pruning and upkeep, so are ideal if you are looking for a low-maintenance option for your landscape. 

Many ornamental grasses are prized for their ability to stabilize sandy soils and provide nesting habitat and food source for wildlife. If you live near the beach or have very sandy soil, consider adding grasses. The fibrous root system stabilizes soil by tightly binding loose sand particles. Beach and dune erosion is a major concern in this region, and you can help protect our beaches by using ornamental native grasses like sea oats. Many of the native ornamental grasses will also provide nesting sites and food for birds, and are also a commonly-used food source for butterfly caterpillars.

What varieties are available?

There are many ornamental grasses available, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. One that is growing in popularity because of its versatility in the landscape is muhly grass (Muhlenbergia spp.). Available in pink or white, muhly grass is a perennial grass that adds a delicate touch of color in the fall when the blooms make their appearance. Another grass that makes for an attractive addition to the landscape is Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). This grass prefers full sun, and is known for its bluish stems and leaves in the summer. In the fall, leaves and stems will turn a copper or bronze color that will persist throughout the winter. River Oats (Chasmanthium latifoium) can make a wonderful addition to an area. This plant is 2-4 feet in height, with large conspicuous drooping seed heads that turn ivory in mid-summer. 

Establishment and Maintenance

Just as with any other plant, proper soil conditioning and maintenance are vital for the establishment of your ornamental grasses. Most grasses will need at least one inch of supplemental water in the first few weeks of establishment. If you have sandy soil, you will need to water more frequently. General fertilization recommendations include an 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 and should be applied in late spring. If you select ground cover grasses, 2-3 pounds of complete fertilizer is recommended per 100 sq. ft. of bed area. After establishment, ornamental grasses can be very low maintenance. Grasses should be cut back within 6-8 inches above the ground in late winter to ensure a healthy flush of growth in the spring. 

Ornamental grasses offer a little bit of everything to a perennial garden bed. If you have areas in your garden where plants are hard to grow, consider adding hardy ornamental grasses. Because of the seasonal interest they provide and the multiple-use benefits, grasses can make a wonderful addition to any home landscape.

Sam Marshall

Extension Gardener Newsletter Banner