Ornamental grasses fill in tricky areas in the yard, edge the foundation or deck, grow in pots or beds, break up a flat expanse with height, and sway in a calming lullaby at the lightest breeze. They make low-maintenance, reasonably hardy, multiseason, multicolor, feathery, spiky, bushy and eye-catching additions to gardens. Choose grasses compatible with your rainfall and growing zone.
Some cool-season grasses keep their color and shape over all or most of the winter. Others brown to striking ghostly sentinels that glitter in a seasonal snowfall. Semi-evergreen ornamental grasses need trimming only in spring to remove ice-frozen or brown blades -- they provide year-round visual interest that’s light on maintenance. Define an entry walkway or a garden path with hardy, low or medium growers and your landscaping won’t disappear in the winter.
- Boulder blue fescue (Festuca glauca), which grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, is a striking silvery-blue, bushy and low-mounding evergreen -- only 8 inches tall -- that works well for a border or massed as ground cover fanning out from a patio into a garden.
- Tufted hair grass (Deschampsia caespitosa, USDA zones 4 through 9), blooms from spring through fall in an explosion of 3-foot-tall delicate green blades surrounding stalks of fluffy, silver flowers. It thrives in containers, stands out in rock gardens and has no appeal for deer.
Tender, sun- and heat-loving grasses brown in a fall chill, sail through winter as dried ornamental sculptures, and require cutting back to about 4 to 6 inches in spring. Warm-season grasses are good choices for hotter-than-usual places in your yard -- the perimeters of driveways and patios or sun-exposed aprons around backyard pools.
- Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium, USDA zones 4 to 9) looks like bamboo but is a low, fast-growing, water-loving summer bloomer with dangling flat flowers that turn copper-colored in the fall. The bushy, medium-green plant tops out at about 2 to 3 feet. It's tough enough to survive the partial sun available near a garden wall or shade tree, and is hardy along sea coasts as it tolerates salty ocean spray.
- Fountain grass 'Foxtrot' (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Foxtrot,’ USDA zones 5 to 9) loves sun and warm soil and will wait for summer warmth before showing vigorous growth. But then you get a 4- to 5-foot-tall, fast-spreading clump of slender green blades topped by fairylike smoky-rose plumes. Fountain grass, escaped from ornamental plantings, is an invasive pest in arid regions of Southwestern states, especially in California, Nevada and Arizona. Check carefully before you plant it.
Near Ponds and in Dry Spots
The romance of the garden pond is enhanced by the natural appeal of grasses that like moist, shady growing spots. Surround the pond with low and clumping grasses or vary tall and low grasses around a rock waterfall. Try blue-tinged grasses beyond the pond to create the visual sense of perspective vanishing into the distance. Rushes and sedges are not, strictly speaking, grasses, but they are typically included in nursery offerings of pond-scaping grasses.
- Twisted arrows rush (Juncus effusus 'Spiralis,' USDA zones 6 to 10) produces a riot of blue-green twisted and straight stems that grow to a maximum height of 3 feet. The plant thrives in the moist soil around a pond and spreads slowly by sending out rhizomes. In a tight space, control its spread by growing it in a container.
- Blue sedge (Carex glauca, USDA zones 5 to 9) is a small evergreen perennial with skinny silvery blue blades that reach only 6 to 12 inches, making it a good choice for edging waterfalls, fountains and fish ponds. It’s a low-maintenance, deer-resistant, slow-grower you can mass for greater impact.
In an arid, drought-plagued section of your yard, save money, effort and precious water with grasses adapted to dry conditions that need infrequent watering.
- Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus,' USDA zones 4 to 10) into a giant hill of silvery-green blades, 6 to 8 feet tall and about half as wide. The blades turn a dramatic golden-bronze or copper-red in fall and the plant requires only infrequent watering. Plant it in the back of the garden or as a feature flanking a raised porch.
- Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima, USDA zones 6 to 10) is a light, feathery green grass with slender stalks and delicate pale flowers. It grows from 1 to 2 feet tall and will readily seed and spread -- in California it is considered an invasive plant. Mass it around boulders in a rock garden or in large terra cotta pots on your patio.
Block the neighbors' view of you or hide your view of the neighbors with tall ornamental grasses that harmonize with your natural landscaping better than a fence. Giant vertical grasses enclose a pool area or a secret space in the garden, screen your front porch from the street and hide unattractive outdoor air conditioner condenser units or a garden shed.
- Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret,' USDA zones 5 to 9) is a showstopper with broad green leaves striped with cream, and thin, pinkish stalks in fall that produce copper-colored plumes. It grows rapidly up to 7 feet tall and will hide the pool pump or your favorite sunbathing spot.
- Hardy pampas grass (Erianthus ravennae, USDA zones 4 to 10) is a giant landscape diva, a member of the sugarcane family, that shoots up to 8 to 10 feet tall. Its green blades and silver-white silky plumes create a dense eye-catching natural fence. It's invasive in some areas, so choose an alternative if it's problematic where you live.