Graceful grasses of the ornamental kind

'Red Head' pennisetum/Proven Winners

'Red Head' pennisetum/Proven Winners

“Grass” traditionally has meant “lawn,” a cropped, carpet-like expanse of green. In recent years, the definition has widened to include ornamental grasses from native landscapes and far-off lands in Asia, Africa, Europe and Central America.

These graceful fountains of foliage offer year-round interest with a wide palette of colors, textures, sizes and shapes. Most are large enough to have an architectural presence and can serve as a focal point in the garden – an ever-changing one as their foliage ripples in the breeze and flirts with the slanted rays of the sun.

An iron constitution and low-maintenance needs have made grasses a popular success. Here are plants that can take heat, drought, wind and wet weather. They are rarely bothered by insect pests, diseases or deer, a four-legged hazard to gardens throughout New Jersey.

Another of their virtues is the way they enliven the garden from late fall through spring. The feathery plumes they produce in autumn will last through the harshest winter, creating an eye-catching feature in otherwise barren landscapes.

The coming of age of ornamental grasses is a modern phenomenon, spurred partly by the trend toward more natural gardens.

Rick Darke, a New Jersey native who wrote a definite text, “The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses” (Timber Press, 1999), believes their popularity reflects a sea-change in gardening, one that pairs beauty and function with sensitivity to sustainable practices and the larger ecosystem. It’s hard to go wrong with plants that offer shelter for wildlife and make low demands for resources like water, fertilizer and fossil fuels

That said, ornamental grasses aren’t appropriate for every location.  They work best with contemporary homes, beach houses and gardens that emphasize a natural look. One effective tactic is to use them in broad sweeps of a single type, allowing generous space around the plants so that wind and sunlight can enliven them. Smaller species work well in containers.   

'Toffee Twist' sedge/Proven Winners

'Toffee Twist' sedge/Proven Winners

Among the first to champion ornamental grasses was the Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, whose influence has spread throughout Europe and abroad. In the United States in 2002, he created the Gardens of Remembrance at Battery Park in Manhattan with Jacqueline van der Kloet, another Dutch designer. Homeowners stumped by how to integrate grasses into existing gardens can steal a few ideas from these masters. They artfully combine grasses with broad swaths of native flowers like asters, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and Joe Pye weed, creating waves of color and texture. 

Another good source of ideas is “Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design” by Nancy Ondra (Storey Books, 2002). She suggests species suited to a wide range of sites as well as “problem solvers” for special conditions like steep slopes and moist locations 

Grasses combine particularly well with spring bulb flowers. Since most grasses need to be cut back in late winter or early spring, they won’t compete with displays of daffodils or tulips. When bulb leaves wither and become unattractive, new grass foliage will rise to hide them.

Although most grass species prefer sun, shade-tolerant species can brighten darker areas of the yard. Light-colored species like the golden-leafed Japanese forest grass (Hakonechola macra ‘Aureola’ create pools of color in dim corners. Individual specimens make striking container plants for the patio or pool area. A tub of pampas grass or wide-bladed New Zealand flax can serve as a dramatic accent – and won’t require the constant attention that annual flowers need to look their best.

Ornamental grasses are generally divided into two classes: warm season or cool season. The first begin growth in spring, reach full maturity in summer and retreat into winter dormancy. The second grow actively in late winter and spring, go dormant in summer’s heat, and resume growth in the fall.

“Clumping” grasses stay put where you plant them, but “running” grasses, which spread via underground runners, can be rampant, especially in moist soil. Green-and-white striped ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea) is one old-fashioned favorite that might be too aggressive for modern gardens. Only a few grasses create problems with seeds, but choosing late-blooming species should circumvent problems by limiting the number of plumes that develop before frost shuts the plant down.

Ornamental grasses offer something distinct from the familiar array of shrubs, perennials and annuals that fill the average garden. If you’d like to experiment with form, texture and movement, consider the versatile grasses.


Specialty suppliers:

American Meadows, 223 Avenue D, Suite 30, Williston VT 05495. Call 877-309-7333 or visit

Plant Delights Nursery, 9241 Sauls Road, Raleigh, NC 27603. Call 919-772-4794 or see

Sooner Plant Farm, 25976 South 524 Road, Park Hill, OK 74451. Call 918-453-0771 or go to