Update Your Landscape with Ornamental Grasses

Update Your Landscape with Ornamental Grasses

Pennisetum aloepcuroides

By Cinthia Milner

Gardens, like kitchens or bathrooms, need an update sometimes. One easy update? Ornamental grasses. Grasses add movement, texture, height, color and fall interest to the garden.

Ornamental grasses are referred to as warm-season grasses. They are the last perennial to show in the spring garden and one of the last to bloom. Some grasses, like pink muhly grass, have colorful blooms (looks like cotton candy), while others, like the switchgrass ‘Shenandoah’, have colorful grass blades (the blades turn purple, burgundy, pink and gold as the garden season ends). Warm season grasses bloom mid to late summer to early fall and come in every size from 6’ x 3’ to 12” x 12”. Adding them to the garden gives an immediate pick-me-up. They pretty much solve the question of what to plant for fall display.

Native grasses are prominent in retail nursery stores now as more invasive grasses are becoming less popular. The miscanthus and pampas grasses have steadily given way to Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) and Schizachyrium scoparium (The Blues grass) and others. And happily, grasses are one plant that adapts to a multitude of cultural settings in the garden while tolerating pest and disease.

Settings in which they work well include rain gardens, rock gardens and container gardens. They can work as screens and as perennial borders. Most can be planted beneath black walnut trees, which can be toxic to some plants.

If you’re considering a fall update for your landscape, think about removing older, dated shrubs that no longer respond well to pruning or create an overly heavy look in the border. Often just creating negative space in the landscape can make the garden feel fresher. When planting back, don’t use shrubbery that will require a lot of pruning to fit into your space. Read the mature sizes of any plants purchased (it should be on the plant tags) and allow room for growth. Pruning becomes a nightmare when plants are crammed into tight confines. Think about that 2’ x 2’ border between the house and sidewalk. How many holly shrubs can fit there? Unfortunately, the answer is likely none. Now, consider grasses in that same place. With a variety of heights to choose from (making sure the width is correct too), that area is transformed into a more modern feel. Factoring in that most borders are halfway under a soffit, meaning they stay dry, grasses fit the bill both culturally and size-wise. They can be used exclusively in tight, narrow areas, or in larger borders mixed with everything from boxwoods to hydrangeas. It is acceptable to do so. They can be punctuation marks in the garden, adding late-season interest and texture or they can guide the eye through the border when used as a ribbon.

If a complete redo of the garden isn’t in the budget, add a few grasses around the mailbox or along a walkway. Their height and movement are eye-catching without taking up too much room. Again, stick to the native cultivars for less bulk. Nurseries carry what is blooming in the garden now, so finding native grasses is easy this time of year. For help on which ones to choose, visit local, independent garden centers where the staff can advise you. And have fun!

Grasses can be used as an anchor plant in the perennial border and easily combined with later summer perennials for a showy display. Some suggestions for companion plantings based on the height of the grasses are listed below.

Characteristics of Ornamental Grasses

  • Tolerate any soil conditions
  • Attract butterflies
  • Attract birds
  • Deer-resistant
  • Provide habitat and
  • Food for wildlife
  • Drought-tolerant
  • Help prevent erosion
  • Tolerate air pollution
  • Are appealing in sweeps and masses
  • Provide focal point
  • Add winter interest

Tall Grasses: 5-6’

  • Agastache
  • Asters
  • Anemone
  • Dahlias
  • Echinacea
  • Eupatorium
  • Gaura
  • Heliopsis
  • Hibiscus
  • Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’
  • Russian sage
  • Solidago
  • Sedum (tall)
  • Verbena bonariensis

Short Grasses: 2-4’ and under

  • Coreopsis
  • Gaillardia
  • Helenium
  • Mountain mint
  • Penstemon
  • Rudbeckia
  • Sedum (tall and groundcover)
  • Yucca

Cinthia Milner is the garden coach and blog writer for B.B. Barns Garden Center. B.B. Barns is located at 3377 Sweeten Creek Road in Arden. Garden center hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Landscaping services are available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more, visit

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