16 Ornamental Grasses You Should Grow

Discover ornamental grasses that earn their keep and then some. These low-maintenance perennials add movement and multi-season beauty to any yard.

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Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

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Photo By: Ball Horticultural Company

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Photo By: PlantSelect.org

Photo By: PerennialResource.com

Photo By: ProvenWinners.com

Photo By: PlantSelect.org

Photo By: PerennialResource.com

Photo By: Ball Horticultural Company

Photo By: BlondeAmbitionGrass.com

Photo By: PerennialResource.com

Photo By: ProvenWinners.com

Photo By: PerennialResource.com

Water-Wise Landscaping

Count on ornamental grasses to create colorful, lively plantings that don’t guzzle water. This pretty grass duet features 'Blonde Ambition’ blue grama grass (foreground), with horizontal, eyelash-like seedheads. This drought-tolerant beauty is a selection of a native grass and grows 28 to 32 inches tall and wide (Hardy Zones 4-9). It’s a mid-size ornamental grass that pairs beautifully with other grasses, like tall 'Pink Flamingo’ muhly grass (Muhlenbergia 'Pink Flamingo’), which is hardy in Zones 6-10.

Grasses For A Cottage Garden

Ornamental grasses can be perennial or annual, depending on where you garden. Tall 'Morning Light’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light’) is a perennial in Zones 5-9. It forms a fountain-like clump 4 to 5 feet tall and up to 3 feet wide. The fuzzy heads of purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum’) appear in summer atop plants that grow up to 3 feet tall and wide. This grass is tropical, hardy in Zones 9-11. In colder regions, treat it as an annual.

Types Of Fountain Grass

Fountain grass comes in a variety of sizes, as well as leaf and seedhead colors. It gets its name from the fact that the flowers and seedheads erupt from the arching mound of leaves like water from a fountain. This duet of fountain grass features (left) Prairie Winds ‘Desert Plains’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) and (right) purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’). ‘Desert Plains’ is hardy in Zones 5-9 and grows roughly 4 feet tall and wide. The bottlebrush flowers start dusky purple and fade to tan. Purple fountain grass is an annual in most regions (Hardy in Zones 9-11), growing up to 3 feet tall and wide. Cut it down after frost once leaves turn brown.

‘Flashlights’ Millet Grass

Turn up the color with 'Flashlights’ millet grass (Milium effusum). This bright perennial gives container combinations or planting beds a golden glow. 'Flashlights’ grows 18 to 24 inches tall and wide, making it a great choice for rock gardens or an edging plant in mixed borders. Give it a spot in full sun with rich, well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 6-9.

Little Bluestem Grass

‘Smoke Signal’ is a selection of a native grass known as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). This variety offers strong, upright stems that maintain their erect posture through fall. Leaves also stage a good fall color show, shifting from red (late summer) to reddish-purple (fall). Tan seedheads appear above leaves in autumn. This sturdy grass grows 3 to 4 feet tall and forms a clump up to 2 feet wide. It’s a great choice for a hot, dry spot where other plants won’t grow. ‘Smoke Signal’ is drought- and salt-tolerant, and deer leave it alone. Hardy in Zones 3-9.

Vertigo Purple Fountain Grass

Want a little drama in your yard? Make room for Vertigo purple fountain grass (Pennisetum purpureum ‘Tift 8’). This gorgeous grass adds bold color with its deep purple—almost black—leaves. Stems stand strong, and leaf ends drape gracefully. Use it solo as an accent plant, or arrange it in mass as a dark hedge. Vertigo commands attention in the garden or containers as it grows 4 to 8 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 8-11. In areas with cold winters, treat Vertigo as an annual.

Windwalker Big Bluestem

Color reigns in this statuesque selection of a native tall prairie grass. Windwalker big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii ‘PWIN01S’) unfurls powdery blue leaves that turn shades of plum and purple in fall. In autumn, burgundy seed heads stand even taller above the tinted leaves. Windwalker has a strong upright form that retains its shape through winter. Cut clumps back to 3 inches in early spring before new growth begins. Plants grow 5 to 6 feet tall and up to 2 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 5-8.

‘Elijah Blue’ Fescue

Several varieties of blue fescue (Festuca glauca) are available on the market. ‘Elijah Blue’ is a classic form, offering powdery blue leaves that bring color to the landscape year-round. Wheat-like seedheads appear in early summer. This grass thrives in dry conditions and is an outstanding choice for rock gardens, troughs or containers. Drought-tolerant and deer-resistant, ‘Elijah Blue’ thrives in coastal conditions, too. Plants grow 8 to 10 inches tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

Japanese Forest Grass

Brighten your yard’s shady spots with a golden waterfall, courtesy of ‘All Gold’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra). Also known as Japanese hakone grass, this glowing beauty boasts naturally cascading growth that makes an elegant focal point. As the name suggests, Japanese forest grass likes a part shade to shady spot with soil that’s well-drained, rich and humusy. Avoid dry, clay or poorly drained soils. This is a slowly spreading ornamental grass, which typically grows 9 to 14 inches tall and up to 24 inches wide. The narrow leaves pair well with broad-leafed hosta varieties or heuchera. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

Korean Feather Reed Grass

If you’re looking for an ornamental grass that delivers fall interest, check out Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha). Large, foot-long seedhead plumes soar above leaves in late summer, donning a pink tinge that matures to tan. Seedheads dry well and make a nice addition to dried arrangements, or let them age naturally in the garden where they’ll add interest all winter long. Korean feather reed grass likes moist soil and tolerates heavy clay soil. Cut plants to the ground in early spring. Leaves grow 36 inches tall and 20 to 24 inches wide. Seedheads stand 12 inches above leaves. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

‘Burgundy Bunny’ Miniature Fountain Grass

Perfect for pots or the front of a border, 'Burgundy Bunny’ miniature fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) brings cute color to any setting. This small ornamental grass showcases light red hue in summer, followed by blazing reds in fall. The small seedheads appear in late summer and linger until harsh winter weather blasts them apart. This grass works well in rock gardens or low water-use landscapes. Plants grow 12 to 16 inches tall and up to 16 inches wide. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

Ornamental Millet

Grown world-wide as a food or forage crop, millet bears a slight resemblance to corn in terms of leaves. Seedheads are more like bottle brushes or cattails covered in small, round seeds, which birds find irresistible. Ornamental millet (Pennisetum glaucum) keeps these characteristics, but offers striking leaf color. 'Purple Majesty’ grows 4 to 5 feet tall and up to 3 feet wide with deep, dark purple leaves. 'Baron’ grows up to 3 feet tall and wide with thinner leaves that are slightly darker than 'Purple Majesty.’ 'Jester’ also grows to 3 feet tall and wide with leaves in a mix of hues: burgundy, green and chartreuse. Use ornamental millet in planting beds or containers. This is a warm-season grass that’s grown as an annual in all zones.

‘Blonde Ambition’ Grass With Coneflower

Ornamental grasses combine well with perennials, especially native plants like Tennessee purple coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis). A planting partner for purple coneflower is ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama grass (Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition’), which offers a strong stem structure that stands up to summer storms and winter snow. ‘Blonde Ambition’ doesn’t self-sow aggressively, so it won’t take over perennial plantings. This plant combination is ideal for a wildlife-friendly garden. ‘Blonde Ambition’ grows 28 to 32 inches tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

‘Karl Foerster’ Feather Reed Grass

'Karl Foerster’ is a commonly used feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora)—and it’s easy to see why. Plants form strongly upright clumps that are perfect for creating a living screen or a backdrop for flowering perennials. Wheat-like seedheads appear in late spring and linger through the growing season. 'Karl Foerster’ tolerates heavy clay soils and is deer-resistant. It doesn’t self-seed, so won’t try to take over your planting beds. Plants grow to 5 feet tall and up to 2 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

‘Totem Pole’ Switch Grass

There’s an ornamental grass to fit every landscape. Prairie Winds ‘Totem Pole’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is the go-to grass for tight spaces. This selection of a native tall prairie grass forms a sturdy upright clump with a small footprint. Plants grow to 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Steel-blue leaves bring subtle color to plantings. Seedheads appear in late summer and linger through winter. ‘Totem Pole’ works well in containers, or count on it to add a strong vertical element to planting beds. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Autumn Moor Grass

Need an ornamental grass for a spot with light shade? Check out autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis). This non-native grass gets its name from the show it stages in autumn. That’s when tan seedheads appear, standing well above the clump of bright green leaves. Drought-tolerant and easy to grow, autumn moor grass holds its own in a mixed planting bed, adapts well to containers and makes an eye-catching planting en masse. Cut clumps to the ground in winter or very early spring. Plants grow 1 to 2 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

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