Best Varieties of Ornamental Grass

Large, Medium, and Small Picks for a Low-Care Alternative

Seed-heads of sea oats grass.
Sea oats grass is grown for its showy seed-heads. Meredith Winn Photography/Getty Images

There are many varieties of ornamental grasses. Most of them share an important trait: low-maintenance. But learn about the features of each individual type before deciding what you want to buy. The heights and hardiness of the following plants can vary greatly:

  • Plumegrass
  • Big bluestem
  • Maiden grass
  • Zebra grass
  • Purple fountain
  • Ornamental millet
  • Blue oat grass
  • Northern sea oats
  • Lilyturf
  • Black mondo
  • Blue fescue
  • Golden Hakone
  • Japanese blood grass

What Makes These Types of Grasses "Ornamental?"

These grass varieties are called "ornamental" for two reasons, both of which are good arguments for including them in your landscaping:

  • You don't walk on ornamental grass.
  • A single ornamental grass plant can be quite pretty to look at.

The term, "ornamental," is used to distinguish this type of grass from "lawn" grass. Ornamental grass is very different from the "grass" that many of us have reluctantly been mowing since our childhoods. The latter is a functional grass, serving primarily a practical purpose: It forms a uniform surface on which to walk when we're out in the yard. Ornamental grass, by contrast, is not meant to be mowed, is not meant to be uniform, and is not meant to be tread upon.

In terms of aesthetics, functional grass is mainly negative space. Its job is not so much to be admired, in and of itself, as it is to form a stage on which the yard's actors (flowers, shrubs, trees, hardscape, etc.) play their roles. Ornamental grass, by contrast, is one of the yard's actors. The primary purpose of ornamental grass is to be pretty, to be an "ornament."

Ornamental grass is used in landscape design the way one uses flowers, shrubs, and trees. In fact, it is often mixed with such plants to fill flower beds, creating diversity in terms of form and texture. When composing such beds, it is best to layer the plants, placing the tallest in the back, the shortest in the front and the rest in the middle. For this reason, we need to categorize ornamental grasses in terms of their height.

Tall Varieties of Ornamental Grasses

No fall or winter landscape should be without a tall ornamental grass. Plumegrass (Erianthus ravennae) is grown in USDA planting zones 4 to 9. It grows 8 to 12 feet tall (its clump has a spread of 3 to 4 feet). This plant, with its tall, thin shafts and fluffy coiffures, has a delicate structure that lends a touch of charm to the harsh winter landscape. Because of its height, a plant such as plumegrass can be used as a focal point.

Andropogon gerardii Indian Warrior is a cultivar of big bluestem grass suitable for zones 3 to 9. A typical clump size is 5 feet tall by 2 feet wide. Grow it in full sun. Starting out green, the leaves turn purple in the middle of the summer. In fall, that color morphs to a reddish-purple. The flower heads are reddish.

Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus) is a fine choice in zones 5 to 9 for a tall, drought-tolerant ornamental grass, as it reaches as much as 7 feet in height, with a spread a bit less than that. Maiden grass bears coppery tassels as seed-heads in early fall, eventually growing lighter in color and adorning the plant as a "plume." Don't cut the clump's stems back until after the bleakness of winter passes, since the graceful stems and puffy plumes of this plant will provide some visual interest on an otherwise barren December-February landscape.

It's mainly late in the season that Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus provides much of a display (after it blooms). If you are looking for a plant that offers more to look at earlier in the year, try Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus. The "zebra" markings on its leaves provide plenty of visual interest even before it flowers.

Intermediate-Sized Varieties of Ornamental Grasses

Purple fountain (Pennisetum setaceum Rubrum) is a tropical ornamental grass. If you live in an area subject to harsh winters, you'll need to treat it as an annual. The plant reaches a height of 3 to 5 feet with a spread of 2 to 4 feet. Its purplish flower spikes are succeeded by fluffy, attractive seed-heads tinged with purple or burgundy. Its spiky foliage is also burgundy in color.

Another type of Pennisetum treated in the North as an annual is Pennisetum glaucum. A popular cultivar is Purple Majesty. If the common name of "millet" for the species sounds familiar, that's probably because millet seed is often part of bird-food mixes. Purple Majesty is so called for its very dark foliage and cattail-like seed-heads, but be sure to grow it in full sun to achieve maximum darkness. It reaches 3 to 5 feet tall.

Blue oat grass is a mounding, cool-season ornamental grass suitable for USDA planting zones 4 to 8. Known botanically as Helictotrichon sempervirens, deer tend to leave this plant alone. This ornamental grass attains a height of 2 to 3 feet tall, with a similar spread. Grow it in full sun and well-drained soils if you wish to enjoy the signature blue hues of its foliage to the fullest. The plant also produces spiky, dark flowers with a bluish tint in summer that turn harvest gold in autumn.

Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is an ornamental grass that grows 2 to 3 feet high in loose clumps of green foliage. Its name comes from its seed pods, which look like oats. This deer-resistant ornamental grass is cold-hardy to zone 5. Even after its leaves have dried and died, it provides visual interest to the winter landscape.

Short Varieties of Ornamental Grasses

For a shorter deer-resistant plant, try liriope, or "lilyturf" (Liriope spicata). Lilyturf (not a true ornamental grass, but a perennial) can be grown in zones 4 to 10 and reaches only about 1 foot in height. Lilyturf likes water but also prefers well-drained soil. Select an area with partial shade and soil rich in compost for best results. This ornamental grass, too, has a spiky flower, ranging in color from white to lavender. In autumn it bears a dark berry. You'll want to contain this plant, however, because it is invasive

Likewise, black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens) does not belong to the Poaceae family of true grasses, but it functions in landscaping as if it did. Also like liriope, it can be invasive. Black mondo reaches 6 inches in height. Its striking color combines well with plants that bear golden or chartreuse leaves. Carex Spark Plug is another impostor (it's a type of sedge) that nonetheless plays the "shorty" role well, reaching only about a foot in height.

Another short ornamental grass (around 1 foot by 1 foot) grown in zones 4 to 8 is blue fescue (Festuca glauca Elijah Blue). The popularity of this clumping, drought-tolerant ornamental grass lies in the blue color of its foliage, which will beautifully complement any surrounding plants you may have with silvery foliage, such as lamb's ears. The plant rather resembles a pincushion bristling with blue pins. As with maiden grass, cut back the foliage in early spring. Divide it every few years to rejuvenate it.

If you prefer your blades to be gold-colored, try golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra Aureola). Also called "Japanese forest grass," it can be tricky to achieve the best coloration with this plant, but it will often turn a wonderfully warm golden color when grown in shade. It also offers wispy seed-heads in fall that add interest to your yard.

Standing at 12 to 18 inches high at maturity is Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica var. rubra), which can be grown in zones  5 to 9. Plant it in full sun to partial shade in a well-drained soil. Drought-tolerant once established, it bears reddish blades, as is suggested by its common name. The species plant is highly invasive, but varieties such as rubra are tamer, although you still must watch out that they do not revert back to the tendencies of their species.

How to Trim Ornamental Grass

"How do you trim ornamental grass?" is a question asked frequently. Most people understand that ornamental grasses need a good haircut, at some point, after they have turned brown. It's just a question of when.

While some tidy folks may prefer to trim ornamental grass at the end of autumn to give the landscape that "clean-cut" look before winter sets in, more of us prefer to do it in spring. Winter interest is one of the main excuses for growing ornamental grass, and you lose that if you trim in fall. Just make sure that, when spring does come, you cut the plant back early enough to get the old growth out of the way before the new growth emerges. Otherwise, you will be worried about mistakenly trimming the new shoots, since they will be right in your way as you attempt to remove dead stalks.

So much for what might be considered the "when" part of the question. But the "how" may be worth considering, too, if you want to avoid making a mess when you trim ornamental grass. Otherwise, your garden will end up looking like a barber shop floor, after a customer has just left. To avoid this mess, tie the dead stalks up into a bundle before you make your cuts. That way, after the cutting is done, you mainly have just one object to pick up and move, rather than all of the individual stalks.

Low-Care Landscaping With Ornamental Grass and Mulch

Whether you mix ornamental grass with shrubs, trees, and flowers or let it stand alone, you'll want to apply mulch around ornamental grass. Replacing lawn grass with a combination of mulch and ornamental grass can reduce yard maintenance requirements. While this may not be feasible for large areas, it is certainly an option for small plots of land. Remember, maintaining a lawn goes beyond mowing grass. It also includes such tasks as: