An Alternative to Common Landscape Plants: Ornamental Grasses

Before there were farms, buildings, or roads scattered across the Iowa landscape, native grasses dominated the land. These grasses covered most of Iowa and supplied the Midwest with a simple, yet diversified ecosystem. In a quest to bring back some of the look and feel of the Iowa prairie, homeowners have recently begun to incorporate native and exotic ornamental grasses into their landscape designs.

Ornamental grasses can be planted to serve many functions. They work well as specimen or accent plants. Tall grass species and varieties can be used as background plants for smaller perennials and annuals and for screens. Smaller grasses can be placed within rock gardens or used to edge beds. To create a low maintenance/sustainable landscape, combine grasses with herbaceous perennials. By planting ornamental grasses you diversify the plants within your landscape while at the same time give your site a unique look, setting it apart from your neighbors.

Another excellent benefit to installing ornamental grasses is their ability to provide a sense of motion and sound to the landscape. Due to the grasses' thinness and flexibility, the slightest wind causes them to move continuously, adding motion to an otherwise static garden. The movement of ornamental grasses also creates a pleasant rustling sound, adding yet another dimension and benefit to the landscape.

The maintenance of ornamental grasses is minimal. One maintenance issue facing certain grass species is they need to be cut back in early spring to promote new growth. Most species are insect and disease resistant, making pesticides and herbicide usage unnecessary. Some popular perennial ornamental grasses include:

Perennial Fountain Grass

Pennisetum alopecuroides Zones 5-8

This stunning grass ranges from 2' to 3' tall and grows in the form of a mound. Its foliage is dark green which turns to a golden brown in the fall. Fountaingrass prefers full sun and a moist, well drained soil.

Feather Reedgrass

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' Zones 4-9

Feather reedgrass is an erect, narrow plant that ranges from 2' to 4' tall. It's foliage changes from a green spring/summer color to gold in the fall. Pinkish flowers are borne on stiff stalks in mid-June. The flowers turn to a golden tan by late summer. It prefers full sun and is tolerant of clay soils.

Japanese Bloodgrass

Imperata cylindrica Zones 5-9

Ranging from only 1' to 1.5' tall, this grass makes an excellent border, accent, or grouped planting. Japanese Bloodgrass exhibits a red leaf tip in spring and in fall the entire leaf turns a dark red. It is an upright, slow spreading plant that prefers full sun to half shade and a moist soil.

Big Bluestem

Andropogon gerardii Zones 4-10

Big Bluestem is a native grass species. It exhibits grayish green, silvery blue foliage that turns to a copper red in fall. The flowers of this species take on a purplish hue from August to September. Big Bluestem reaches 4' to 6' tall and prefers full sun and a well drained soil. It is tolerant of heavy clay soils and drought.

Miscanthus sinensis

Within the genus Miscanthus are quite possibly some of the more popular species of ornamental grass. These grasses come in a wide range of colors, textures, and sizes and all have a place in the suburban landscape. Some popular species include:

'Gracillimus' makes an excellent screen plant. This variety of Miscanthus is a medium green color and can grow up to 6' tall. It produces silvery white flowers in early fall. Eventually, the flower plumes become tan and remain throughout the winter. 'Gracillimus', commonly known as Maiden Grass, grows in a mass clump, prefers full sun/half sun, thrives in moist soils, and is hardy from zones 5-9. Miscanthus sinensis 'Siberfedher,' or Silverfeather Miscanthus has similar growth habits and site requirements. It is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9.

'Zebrinus' is a popular grass due to its unique, golden-striped leaves. It has a floppy growth habit and can reach heights of 7'. 'Zebrinus,' commonly known as Zebra grass, prefers full sun/half sun and moist soils. Porcupine Grass ('Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus') has leaves similar to Zebra Grass, but is more upright. Both varieties are hardy from zones 5-9.

'Morning Light' sets itself apart from other grasses as its narrow green leaves have three white stripes running the length of the blade. It will grow to a height of 3' to 4' and form a mass clump. It requires full sun/half sun and moist soils. Morning Light Grass performs well in zones 5-8.

Switch Grass

Panicum virgatum Zones 4-9

Switch Grass is another native prairie grass. The leaves of switch grass are gray to green and form tight clumps when they are planted in full sun. During the fall, several varieties develop a reddish leaf color. Below is a list of five switch grass cultivars that exhibit excellent fall color.

'Haense Herms' has a red-orange tint in the fall. Its flowers are white and make an excellent accent to the reddish fall foliage.

'Heavy Metal' begins in the spring with a metallic blue color which changes to an amber yellow in the fall. Eventually, the foliage turns to beige in winter.

'Rehbraun'is a grass that grows to 4' tall and turns a reddish brown in the fall.

'Rotstrahlbusch' reaches 4' tall and turns a red color in the fall. In the summer it has amber flowers.

'Squaw' grows to 4' tall and exhibits an excellent red fall color.

These are only a few examples of common ornamental grasses. Many others exist, each with their own growing habits and aesthetic appeal. Combine grasses with other plants to get interesting results. Adding several different species to your landscape will increase its diversity and give it a prairie-like appearance. A more naturalized landscape can be achieved by combining ornamental grasses with popular varieties of annuals, perennials, and shrubs.

This article originally appeared in the June 25, 1999 issue, pp. 84-85.


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