How to Grow Ribbon Grass (Reed Canary Grass)

A Fast-growing, Robust Ornamental Grass That's Ideal for Expansive Wetland Areas

ribbon grass

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Phalaris arundinacea, more commonly known as Reed Canary Grass, is a tall-growing bunchgrass. It's often found beside rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands in its native habitat.

One of the most common cultivars of this species is Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea var. picta). This is an ornamental grass variety with eye-catching variegated foliage that can work well as a tall, textured, and interesting ground cover.

Although ribbon grass flowers, it's the foliage that makes this plant. The blooms aren't of any great significance. This cool-season grass grows in the spring and fall but can go dormant during the summer months.

In sunny sites, with consistent moisture, this plant thrives. In fact, it spreads incredibly easily and quickly. For this reason, it won't be suited to every garden. Ribbon grass can quickly overtake small spaces, and some states even class this species as an invasive and noxious weed. It will work, however, being grown contained in pots or being used as a dramatic mass planting option.

It can grow in wet, boggy conditions around ponds and can stabilize river bank edges or slopes. It's best to select it for those purposes when nothing else will grow. Otherwise, it could choke out other established species with its strong spreading rhizomes. This hardy grass can also grow in dry, desert gardens, and these conditions will limit its spread considerably. Ribbon grass is considered invasive in some areas, so check with your local extension office agent before planting it.

Common Name Ribbon grass, reed canary grass
Botanical Name Phalaris arundinacea var. 'Picta'.
Family Poaceae
Plant Type Perennial ornamental grass
Mature Size 1-3 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Loamy, clay, sandy, well-drained, moist
Soil pH Acidic, neutral, alkaline
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Green, but insignificant
Hardiness Zones 4-9 (USDA)
Native Area Europe, North America
ribbon grass

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

blue ribbon grass

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Ribbon Grass Care

A versatile, robust plant, ribbon grass will grow in most soil types and can also handle standing water or dry conditions. It's a low-maintenance species, and it isn't prone to disease or pest infestations. The variegated leaves are about 6 inches long and have white stripes running down the leaf, making a striking pattern against the green portion of the leaf. Pull off any dead leaves throughout the year to keep it looking nice and neat.

Warning

This species is considered invasive in the Midwest, and several west coast states have banned the sale of this plant due to its invasive tendencies. Check with your local extension office agent before planting it.

Light

Ribbon grass thrives in partial shade locations. It can also cope in full sun, but if the summer heat is intense, then leaf scorch can occur. A partial shade location also means that the spread of this plant is less intense, and it's less likely to choke out other plants.

Soil

One of the advantages of ribbon grass is that it tolerates a wide variety of soils. It can cope in dry, infertile soils, clay, and sand. It isn't fussy about pH levels either. The one thing it does like is for the soil to be well-drained.

Water

Ribbon grass prefers moist soils, but this robust plant can still survive in standing water and when conditions are dry. If you want to limit the spread of ribbon grass, keeping conditions drier can help. When you're using this species as a stabilizer or a fast-spreading ground cover, you will want to keep it well-watered to encourage speedy growth.

Temperature and Humidity

This hardy grass can cope with a wide variety of conditions. As already mentioned, intense heat can lead to leaf scorch. Frost can also lead to damage to the leaves. It's a good idea to protect the roots with mulching in winter if you experience colder conditions.

Fertilizer

Ribbon grass doesn't need regular feeding to thrive. However, if your plants have suffered from leaf scorch during a hot summer, using a weak fertilizer solution can encourage new and healthy growth.

Types of Ribbon Grass

There are two types of ribbon grass: Phalaris arundinacea var. 'Picta' and Phalaris arundinacea var. 'Feesey' . Both are grown the same, they are just different in looks.

Picta: bold striped variegated white and green stripes with pale green flowers that are an insignificant addition to the plant.

Feesey: as the Picta variety, this type is also variegated with white and green stripes and produces pale green flowers, the difference is the stripe pattern. It has a thick white stripe in the middle and is bordered by green stripes on the outside.

Pruning

Prune the grass down to the new growth in the early summer. If the leaves become sun-scorched in intense sun, cut back the plant in mid-summer to encourage new growth for fall. Pruning will help retain the striking variegated pattern on the grass.

Propagating Ribbon Grass

While ribbon grass produces seeds, it spreads primarily through fast-spreading rhizomes. It's easy to propagate from these in the spring or fall. You can also create new plants by dividing healthy clumps. Here's how:

  1. Choose a healthy clump and carefully take it out of the soil with a garden using a trowel.
  2. Locate the center of a healthy clump.
  3. Divide the clump by cutting it in half with the trowel.
  4. Plant the two clumps in the desired location and water.

Potting and Repotting Ribbon Grass

Ribbon grass grows well in containers. They look great in pots at entryways, on outside patios, or on lanais. You can pair them up in a large container with other plants to add a pop of color, including black-eyed susan, coreopsis, salvia, coneflower, iris, and many others.

Overwintering

Ribbon grass goes dormant in the summer months, so it is best to keep the soil on the drier side during this time period. In colder weather zones, the leaves can get damaged by frost. In the areas that get frost or snow, protect the roots of ribbon grass by putting mulch around the base of the plant.

FAQ
  • How fast does ribbon grass grow in a year?

    Ribbon grass spreads by rhizomes and can grow up to 12 inches or more a year, depending on the growing conditions.

  • How deep do you plant ribbon grass?

    Plant ribbon grass only up to the base of the plant. Dig a hole deep enough for the roots, put the plant in and cover up the roots just up to the base where you see the leaves start coming out .

  • Is ribbon grass deer resistant?

    Deer like to nibble on some of the ornamental grasses, and ribbon grass is one that they do enjoy eating.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ribbon Grass. University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.