Year-round interest make these a gardeners’ dream Ornamental grasses

By Marilyn McKinley

OSU Master Gardener Volunteer


My ongoing pursuit to decrease maintenance in my yard continues.

This year, I am adding more ornamental grasses. I have a few, but this is the year to add more.

Grasses seem like a great idea for several reasons. They provide year-round interest in the yard. They are basically carefree – some water, a little fertilizer, whack ‘em down in the spring and they come back. They provide food and shelter for wildlife. They are diverse in color, shape and height. What’s not to love?

There are two main types of grasses. They are:

Cool Season Grasses

According to the University of Illinois, these grasses start to grow early in the spring, they do better when the temperatures are cool and require watering during any drought periods.

If not watered they will turn brown and go dormant, kind of like our lawns.

They require division more often (more on that later). If they are not divided, the centers of the plant tend to die out. This leaves a plant that looks unhealthy and unkept.

Fescues, Blue Oat Grass, and Tufted Hair Grass are examples of cool season grasses commonly grown in our area.

Warm Season Grasses

These grasses will remain green and look good during the heat of summer.

This means they are slow to show growth in the spring, so there is more time to prune them back when I feel like it is warm enough to garden in spring.

Dividing is not done as frequently as cool season grasses. That’s a good thing because once established they have very deep roots.

Some examples of warm season grasses grown in our area include Northern Sea Oats, Hardy Pampas grass and Switch grass.

Besides seasonal differences, the growth habits of grasses differ. They may grow in clumps or by rhizomes.

Clump grasses grow like most other perennials in our gardens, spreading out from the center. Rhizome forming grasses spread by way of underground stems.

These plants can grow out of control before you know it. So, do your research before selecting the right grass.

As with all plants, you should know what’s in your soil and prepare it before you plant.

A starter fertilizer would be acceptable at planting time, but ornamental grasses do not require extra fertilizer.

Plant grasses at the level they are grown in their containers.

To control weeds in the area, mulching is best and helps to conserve moisture.

There is no need to cut down for the winter. Personally, I like the seeing snow on the grasses and the gentle movement with the wind.

For most grasses, simply cut foliage down to a few inches above the ground in early spring.

If you see green, don’t cut any lower.

Some grasses I plan to add to our landscape are: Morning Light Maiden grass, Blue Whiskers and Japanese Forest grass.

I am planting bamboo seeds. Yes, you can grow bamboo here without being overcome with a forest of the stuff.

There are two kinds of bamboo: clumping and running.

Be sure you choose the clumping type for your landscape, unless you want to grow a jungle.

To learn more about ornamental grasses for your landscape, check out this bulletin referred to from the University of Illinois at

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