12 Best Ornamental Grasses for Your Landscape

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12 Best Ornamental Grasses for Your Landscape

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For nearly nonstop performance, strength, and visual impact, few plants compare to ornamental grasses. Unlike lawn or turfgrass varieties, ornamental grasses are meant to grow—not be cut or mown—and most are not used as ground covers. Once you start landscaping with ornamental grasses you will be amazed by how many varieties, sizes, shapes, and colors are available. You can also use an ornamental grass in a container garden, as part of the thriller, filler, spiller theory.

Choose Good Habits

Ornamental grasses typically have either a spreading habit or a clumping habit. Spreaders tend to be taller and more dramatic, while clumping grasses form relatively short mounds. Choose the best habit for your garden needs.

Here are 12 of the most popular ornamental grasses to grow.

Blue Fescue

How low does blue fescue (Festuca glauca) grow? Well, not as low as closely sheared turf grass. Actually, some fescues are grown as lawns, such as the clumping red fescue. To add more confusion, turf fescues are classified as tall fescues, the seeds of which were brought to the United States from Europe in the early 19th century.

But in the world of ornamental grasses, fescues are considered low-growers and are often used as edgings, borders, and ground covers. In addition to blue fescue, other popular ornamental fescues include atlas fescue (Festuca mairei), California fescue (Festuca californica), and sheep fescue (Festuca ovina).

USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8Sun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Dry to medium moisture, well-drained

Mexican Feather Grass

You might have noticed Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima or Stipa tenuissima) showing up in gardens and other areas all over town. Mexican feather grass is even grown on green roofs. The seeds are at the very tips of the featherlike “blades,” which wave in the gentlest of winds. Mexican feather grass also spreads. It can show up all over the yard, in sidewalk cracks, and down the street in neighbors’ yards.

Mexican feather grass survives in dry conditions and thrives just fine after being cut back. Some native plant organizations consider it invasive. If you can contain it, though, this grass is quite lovely, especially when it blows in the wind.

USDA Growing Zones: 6 to 10Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: Well-drained, loamy, acid; tolerant of sand and clay

Japanese Forest Grass

Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) comes from areas around Mt. Hakone in Japan and is popular for its beautiful and exotic clumping habit. Cultivars such as 'All Gold' and 'Aureola' have variegated green and gold leaves. This deciduous grass can be identified by its slender stems, which look like tiny bamboo stalks. It is striking in containers or as a color accent in borders, especially with darker green plants or those with purple flowers. It requires regular watering, weekly, or more often during hotter temperatures.

USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9Sun Exposure: Part shadeSoil Needs: Moist, well-drained, humusy

Zebra Grass

Zebra grass is known as Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus' botanically. It is also sometimes called porcupine grass (Miscanthis sinensis 'Strictus'). This green and pale yellow upright beauty dies back in winter, then comes back strong in the spring, whether or not it has been trimmed. It can grow 5 feet tall or taller and about 5 feet wide, even if you prune it during its growing season, which is spring and summer in the western United States.

Depending on what you pair zebra grass with, it can have an exotic, tropical look and is striking planted near broad-leafed tropical plants with colorful flowers such as canna, ginger, hibiscus,​ and plumeria.

USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9Sun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Any type: chalk, clay, loam, sand

Bamboo

It is easy to forget that bamboo (Bambusa sp. or Phyllostachys sp.) is actually a member of the grass family. Bamboo grows upright and spreads quickly (sometimes too much), and it requires a regular watering schedule during the first growing season to establish a deep, extensive root system. A native of China, bamboo was introduced to the Western world sometime after the mid-19th century.

Bamboo naturally grows in warm climates, but you can also find cold-hardy varieties, such as Bisetti (hardy to zone 4), Nuda (hardy to zone 4), Giant Leaf (hardy to zone 5), and Spectabilis (hardy to zone 5). In very cold areas, bamboo canes often die back in winter, but the roots survive. Some types are evergreen in zones 5 and above.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 and up, depending on varietySun Exposure: Part shadeSoil Needs: Loose, well-drained, slightly acid

Purple Fountain Grass

Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') has become an extremely popular landscaping plant in both residential and commercial settings. It has a striking, fountain-like form, reddish-purple color, and feather-like flowers that make it appealing from a distance and for up-close viewing. It is hardy only to zone 9; in cold-winter areas, it is typically grown as an annual.

The mature size of this grass is fairly predictable—usually 2 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide. While it is considered low-maintenance, that is often because gardeners and landscape maintenance workers cut it to about a foot high when it starts to look dry in late fall—and it resembles a cropped bale of hay.

Purple fountain grass can almost be a year-round performer if you treat it right. When it starts to spread out and the feathered flowers resemble wheat, it is time to deadhead the grass. In a garden, it looks striking next to lime green and silver grasses and plants such as oat grass or sweet potato vine. It is also deer-resistant and is drought-tolerant once established. It is especially beautiful in fall container arrangements and autumn gardens.

USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 10Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained

New Zealand Flax

Like fountain grass, New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) has become increasingly popular in residential and commercial applications. Possessing a similar deep-red, purplish- bronze color, New Zealand flax's leaves are more broad or strap-like than the finer fountain grass. It also tends to get taller, reaching a height of 5 feet or more, and about 4 feet wide. This grass must be de-clumped every few years. While this is not an easy task, after you have separated the clumps and replanted them elsewhere in the garden, you will have gained new plants for free.

USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 10Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained

Japanese Blood Grass

Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' or Japanese blood grass is a colorful red, yellow, and green grass that is native to Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, India, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Upright clumps spread slowly underground by runners. It grows best in damp, rich soil and likes moisture during the hottest months. If the soil is too dry, it can fade away or die. Despite its beauty, some regions consider it invasive. It is also called cogon grass.

Note: Imperata cylindrica is an invasive species that, according to U.S. federal law, is illegal to grow without a permit. However, the 'Rubra' cultivar is relatively less aggressive and is sold in garden centers in many cold-winter areas, where it is easier to control than in warmer zones. To be safe, confirm that your state's laws permit use of this grass before buying or planting it.

USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: Moist, well-drained

Blue Oat Grass

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens, Avena candida) grows to about 3 to 6 feet in height and 1 to 3 feet in width. It can be identified by its fountainlike silver-blue blades with a light beige dome that appears in the summer. Blue oat grass likes full sun and weekly water. It can be drought-tolerant after it is established. The grass is great for rock gardens with succulents, native landscaping, borders, and mass plantings.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8Sun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained

Pink Muhly Grass

Pink muhly grass is also known as sweetgrass, gulf muhlygrass, mist grass, hairawn muhly, and the botanical name, Muhlenbergia capillaris. It is named after botanist/chemist/mineralogist Henry Muhlenberg. This ornamental grass is admired for its fall- and winter-blooming pink flowers or featherlike plumes. In landscape design, muhly grass looks best in large or mass clumps in perennial borders or native gardens, where its wispy pink blooms offer a lot of visual impact.

USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: Medium moisture, sandy or rocky, well-drained

Egyptian Papyrus

Cyperus papyrus is sometimes called an African native grass or a grass-like plant. Egyptian Papyrus fits nicely into the ornamental grass category. These exotic beauties can grow up to 72 inches or more, they like moist soil, and they can thrive in a water garden. In regions that do not experience freezing temperatures, this grass is a perennial.

USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 11Sun Exposure: Full sunSoil Needs: Rich, wet

Black Mondo Grass

Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) grows to only about 8 inches high but is a spreader, making it an ideal ground cover. Not actually black, it is more of a dark greenish-purple; it looks striking when paired with light lavender, chartreuse, or lime-colored plants. It likes partial to full sun and moist, well-drained soil.

USDA Growing Zones: 6 to 9Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shadeSoil Needs: Moist, well-drained, humusy, slightly acid

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