10 Best Ornamental Grasses for Containers

New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax and hybrids)

Marie Iannotti

As ornamental grasses become garden staples, they are finding their way into more and more container gardens. Growing ornamental grasses in containers is a great way to feature grasses without the worry of them spreading or taking over the garden. Container-grown ornamental grasses are also much easier to divide.

The downside is that when you grow grasses in containers, they are less hardy—generally by about two hardiness zones. For example, an ornamental grass rated for USDA hardiness zone 5 when planted in the ground typically is hardy only to zone 7 when planted in a pot. (Note: the USDA zones listed below refer to ground-grown plants, not container-grown.) The actual hardiness of a container-grown ornamental grass depends upon its exposure, the material of the container, weather fluctuations during the winter months, and how well you winterize it. However, you can always treat ornamental grasses in containers as annuals, replanting them each year.

Here are 10 good choices for ornamental grasses to grow in containers.

Tip

Caring for ornamental grasses in containers is basically the same as any other outdoor potted plant. They need regular water, but most are not as thirsty as flowering plants. Feed the plants with a high nitrogen fertilizer a couple of times during the summer, and you will need to cut them back each spring or fall. Other than that, the major maintenance is dividing them when they outgrow their containers, which can happen quite quickly. Left undivided, ornamental grasses can even split their pots.

  • 01 of 10

    Blue Lyme Grass (Leymus arenarius)

    Blue Lyme Grass (Leymus arenarius)
    cultivar413/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Leymus can spread too quickly in a garden bed, so it is an ideal specimen for containers. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall in tufted clumps. Planted in a container you still get the imposing sword-shaped leaves that bend as they grow tall, and the spiky flower heads.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Blue-green foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Average dry to wet soil
  • 02 of 10

    Blue Oat Grass (Helichtrichon sempervivens)

    Blue Oat Grass (Helichtrichon sempervivens)
    Drew Avery/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Containers of blue oat grass bring a cooling blue-gray to the garden as well as a gentle rustling sound and a texture that makes you want to reach out and touch the plant. The plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall, with thin spiky leaves and a clumping growth habit.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Steel-blue foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium-moisture, well-drained soil
  • 03 of 10

    Red (Purple) Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum')

    Red/Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum')
    mrmac04/morguefile

    Fountain grass is a natural for containers, filling the pot with its fountain-like, arching habit. The rich, burgundy color of the 'Rubrum' cultivar makes it a favorite even where it is not hardy (it is a fast-growing grass that is easily grown as an annual). The narrow-bladed leaves grow 3 to 4 feet tall, with flower spikes that extend to 4 or 5 feet.

    Other varieties to try include Pennisetum 'Burgundy Giant' and Pennisetum orientale.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 7 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Red/purple foliage (other cultivars are shades of green)
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil
  • 04 of 10

    Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola')

    Golden Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' )
    Marie Iannotti

    It seems everyone wants Hakone grass once they see it. If you do not have the moist, partially shaded conditions it thrives in, try growing it in a pot. 'Aurealoa' is a cultivar that has golden-striped leaves. It grows 12 to 18 inches tall with a gracefully arching growth habit.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 5 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Yellow-green foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade
    • Soil Needs: Moist, well-drained soil
    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Bamboo Muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa)

    Bamboo Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia dumosa)

    reader of the pack/Flickr/CC By 2.0

    This native of California and Arizona got the common name bamboo muhly because of its notched stems and bamboo-like foliage. It thrives in sun and heat and can take a bit of neglect in a container. It grows to 4 feet tall, with delicate, finely textured foliage.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 8 to 11; grown as annual in cooler climates
    • Color Varieties: Light green foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium-moisture, well-drained soil; tolerates dry conditions
  • 06 of 10

    Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster')

    Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster')

    F. D. Richards/Flickr/CC By 2.0

    The feather reed grasses are among the most adaptable and popular ornamental grasses for gardens. 'Karl Foerster' has wonderful, tall flower plumes that create an eye-catching focal point when grown in a container. Although feather reed grass needs a bit of protection from the hot sun, it can survive winters in containers down to zone 6. It grows to about 5 feet tall.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 6 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Medium-green foliage with brownish flower/seed stems
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture to wet soil; tolerates clay soil
  • 07 of 10

    Leatherleaf Sedge (Carex buchananii)

    Carex buchananii with Silene dioica var. Campion in naturalistic planting, Chelsea Flower Show 2008
    Anne Green-Armytage / Getty Images

    Sedges are not really grasses but this one is included because sedges do not get the notice they deserve. Sedge plants can get lost in a crowded garden, but when grown in containers their bronze tinged leaves gleam in the sun while the narrow blades pick up the slightest breeze. Leatherleaf sedge grows 1 to 2 feet tall, with fine-textured, upright foliage.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 6 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Bronze to brown foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained soil
  • 08 of 10

    Japanese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light')

    Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis) 'Rotfuchs'
    Cora Niele / Getty Images

    One of the most popularly grown grasses, Miscanthus sinensis does just as well in containers. The airy growth habit has a softening effect and the white on the leaf margins brightens the garden. It grows 3 to 7 feet tall, with dense, upward-arching leaves and flower/seed stems. The 'Morning Light' cultivar is noted for having thin green leaves with white variegated margins. Other good choices include Miscanthus sinensis Variegatus', M. sinensis 'Autumn Morning', and M. sinensis condensatus 'Cosmopolitan'.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 4 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Silver-green or variegated foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil
    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Japanese Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon')

    Japanese Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon')
    F. D. Richards/Flickr/CC By 2.0

    Sometimes a container calls for something short. At 6 to 12 inches tall, Japanese sweet flag adds a beautiful gold color and the familiar sweet scent that gives it its common name. Japanese sweet flag needs regular water and some shade when grown in a container. Despite its appearance, Japanese sweet flag is not technically a member of the grass family, but is more closely related to the sedges.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 10 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Gold-green foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture to wet soil
  • 10 of 10

    New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax)

    New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax and hybrids)
    Marie Iannotti

    New Zealand flax is frequently used and seldom recognized. Although they are not true grasses, their leaves can be very grass-like and they are used for similar landscape purposes. For spiky, sword-like form and a variety of colors, including greens, reds, copper, and yellow, they are perhaps the most versatile container grass-like plants. There are many cultivars available, ranging from 3 to 9 feet in height, with attractive sword-shaped leaves.

    • USDA Growing Zone: 9 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Bright green or striped/variegated foliage (depending on cultivar)
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil

Tip

When growing ornamental grasses in pots rather than in the ground, the normal garden soil recommendations do not apply. And unlike most potted plants, ornamental grasses do not really thrive when planted in a general-purpose potting mix.

Instead, ornamental grasses do best when planted in a mixture of compost, topsoil and a small amount of grit (such as fine gravel or perlite). Species of grasses that prefer medium-moisture or wet soil require more frequent watering than those that prefer dryer soils, but don't attempt to alter the quality of the soil to match the type of grass.