Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape
by Don Janssen, Extension Educator
Page through most garden magazines and catalogs and you are bound to run across ornamental grasses. They look attractive and are said to be easy to grow. They sound like good choices for the landscape, and in fact they are!
Ornamental grasses are desirable additions to the landscape for several reasons. Certainly they offer a variety of colors, textures, and growth habits, with multi-seasonal landscape interest. Maintenance needs are low, as are pest and disease problems. Uses include ground covers, hedges, screens, naturalizing, and adding focal points to the landscape.
Most ornamental grasses prefer sun locations. Most species will tolerate a variety of soil conditions. Many have a bunch type growth habit, meaning they will not become an invasive problem, although a few species do have runners that may allow them to spread considerably. Most species grow fairly quickly.
Ornamental grasses are usually planted as transplants. Primary care is to provide water during dry weather until the plants are established. Little fertilization is needed for most species. The most important care is to cut back old foliage before new growth emerges each year.
There are many ornamental grass species available. Match the characteristics of the species to what is desirable to your landscape and make sure the species is hardy.
A very popular ornamental grass is feather reed grass, or Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster.' This grass features strong, upright clumps with bronze flowers that last for extended periods of time. This grass is used a great deal in the industry.
Several species of ornamental grasses can provide shades of blue to the landscape, all of which like full sun but tolerate partial shade. The blue fescues (Festuca species) grow as low mounds of blue-gray, fine textured foliage. They are good choices as accent plantings, groundcovers, and for rock gardens. Blue oat grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens, produces larger mounds of medium textured foliage. Then there's Blue Lymegrass (Leymus arenarius), a coarse species that may become invasive due to rhizomes, but a good choice near waterways.
Fountain grass, or Pennisetum alopecuroides, is a popular species with arching clumps of foxtail-like flowers. This species is marginally hardy. The red or burgundy fountain grasses should be considered annuals in our area. They make good additions to landscape beds containing various types of annual flowers.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a native grass that makes a good choice for landscape use. Erect clumps of arching blue-green foliage and a reddish-brown fall color make this an attractive plant. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a much taller native species that grows in upright, open clumps of arching foliage. The turkey-foot flowers appear in late summer.
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) is another popular native grass. This species features arching mounds of fine textured foliage along with open, airy seedheads in late summer. Another interesting native is side oats grama, or Bouteloua curtipendula. Narrow, erect seedstalks with a single row of florets make this a unique and interesting plant.
Finally, Indian grass, Sorghastrun nutans, is another good native perennial ornamental grass. Taller, medium textured blue-green foliage turns bronze in fall. The very attractive golden flowers appear in late summer.
These are among the more popular ornamental grasses to consider adding to your landscape. Certainly there are others. Research the species that best fit your landscape, making sure they are hardy and not invasive. Most are easy to grow and relatively problem-free.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office