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Ornamental grasses at Bluestem Nursery


Ornamental Grasses

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Why are ornamental grasses so popular?

  • low maintenance
  • make a nice rustling sound in the wind
  • hardiness and longevity
  • largely unaffected by disease and pests
  • especially appropriate for golf courses
  • four seasons of interest
  • variety of size and form
  • speed of growth and vigor
  • useful in a wide range of soil types
  • revitalizes poor soils
  • largely deer resistant
  • softens massive projects
  • sway gently in the slightest breeze
  • provides shade
  • often at their best in the Fall
  • make wonderful dried flower arrangements (thanks to Anne Kivari)
  • many varieties are drought tolerant, once established (thanks to Richard A. Barry)
  • fantastic for container planting (R Barry)
  • great for slope stablization (R Barry)
  • effective as specimens in borders, ground covers and other designs (R Barry)
  • easy to propagate and test for other areas (R Barry)
  • provides a habitat for birds and other wildlife (thanks to Derek Wood)
  • stems that have been cut off in spring make good mulch or compost material (D Wood)
  • provides a conversation starter and opportunity to encourage others to use them (thanks to Hazel Trego)
  • have an upright form that doesn't take up the width of most shrubs (thanks to Rebecca Chesin)
  • wonderful winter interest! (Rebecca Chesin)
  • deep and often fibrous root systems discourage gophers and other tunneling critters (Rebecca Chesin)
  • improve soil condition and fertility; the root system regenerates every 3-4 years, with the old parts decomposing (R Chesin)
  • environmentally friendly (thanks to Peter Schwier)
  • help carbon neutral cycle (P Schwier)
  • during the slow time of the year, Jan, Feb, and some of March - it gives you an opportunity to work outside, cutting and clearing, at a time there isn't so much going on (thanks to Betty Stueve)
  • provide seeds for birds (thanks to Susan K)
  • mix well with perennials in the border, for either a formal effect or a more naturalized effect that mimics a meadow of grasses and forbs (Susan K)
  • provide support for taller perennials that tend to flop (Susan)
  • hide dying foliage or blooms of earlier blooming perennials that tend to die out towards the end of season (Susan K)
  • I use the grasses in Hortitherapy: dry flower, pressed plants, table center, bouquets, fresh cut flower, ... (M Larochelle)
  • on acreages, they can be used as transition plants between landscaped area and naturalization area (M. Towriss-Smith)
  • when massings are planted they let you see wind move through the land and produce an added scuptural effect to the terrain (S Sachs)
  • many grasses provide seed and cover for wildlife (thanks to T. Barclay)
  • in a cactus garden they provide movement and interest in an otherwise mono-variety garden (C Barnum)
  • they are extremely soothing and relaxing to watch as they gently sway (P Reid)
  • grasses are beautiful when they are backlit by a setting or rising sun, especially when they are in flower. A great time to get out your camera (anon)
  • they are not killed by weeds (C Grossi)
  • they can grow tall enough to screen away the neighbors without becoming too big to be easily managed (except Bamboo) (C Grossi)
  • they grow at the bottom of fences and force out weeds that used to hide there, eliminating weeding (C Grossi)
  • they hide chain link (C Grossi)
  • they can be cut down and invigorated (CG)
  • they can be cut down and eliminated without chemicals (CG)
  • they are easily divided, moved, and re-established almost anywhere else (CG)
  • thay can always be kept to size and space with little effort (except Bamboo) (CG)
  • they protect and improve the water supply by removing contaminants and blocking runoff (CG)

Corn is a grass
Did you know corn is a grass?

Ornamental Grasses - Warm Season vs Cool Season

Grasses are generally classified as cool-season or warm-season. Cool season grasses start to grow as soon as the temperature rises above freezing in the spring. At this time, they often have their brightest foliage. By early-summer, they are flowering and growth slows. Cool season grasses combine beautifully with small spring bulbs like Scilla or Kaufmanniana tulips. They are a good choice for areas with an extremely short growing season (read more about growing grasses in cold climates on our blog).

Cool season grasses are not happy being transplanted during hot weather because their roots are not growing then. Therefore we do not ship bare root grasses during the summer. However they transplant very well in the spring and fall.

Warm season ornamental grasses, on the other hand, start to grow much later in the Spring. You may even be fooled into thinking they have died! Flowering commences in mid to late summer and continues until frost. Warm season grasses look great late in the season, but they can also play a role in the spring garden. For instance, Pennisetum alopecuroides will start to grow just in time to mask the foliage from the earlier display of tulips.

Warm season grasses require warm soil temperatures for about 2 weeks before they start to grow in the spring. They do not like to have their roots disturbed when the soil is cold. Therefore they should not be dug for transplanting before they are showing signs of growth. They are very picky about this! The result is that we are only able to ship bare root warm season grasses during warm weather in late spring into summer. Also, once they start to form blossoms, they are past their season for digging.

When choosing grasses we suggest that you have a mix of warm and cool season grasses, so as to provide interest from spring to fall. Plant cool season grasses in front of warm season grasses in a border, rather than planting warm season in front of warm season grasses. The area will be rather bare as you wait for the plants to poke their heads out of the ground.

That being said, Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster', a cool season grass, will provide interest from late June through to mid March.

For a list of warm and cool season grasses and some info for those of you who live in cold climates, check out this article on our blog.

Bamboo - an ornamental grass
Bamboo is a grass too

Ornamental Grasses - Clump-forming vs Runners

Grasses may also be classified as either runners or clump-forming. Many of the running types are aggressive spreaders and can be used on slopes for erosion control and as ground cover. The clump-forming grasses make fine specimens, but are equally effective if used in groups or in masses. Since most ornamental grasses respond best to open sunny sites they are often used in borders. Clump-forming grasses are generally the best for these locations and there is ample choice in this category. However, runners may also be used for this purpose. They can be excellent for borders when properly planted in a ground-level container. The runners are also good for stabilizing slopes and some are good on sand dunes.

A third classification is called sod-forming. These grasses put out very short rhizomes so technically they are not clump-forming. But their yearly spread is really just a widening of the clump and they are not considered to be invasive.

The invasive and non-invasive grasses are listed on our Landscape Uses page, at the bottom.


The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden - Darke

Planting: A New Perspective - Oudolf & Kingsbury

Landscapes in Landscapes - Oudolf & Kingsbury

Planting the Natural Garden - Oudolf & Kingsbury

Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space - Oudolf & Kingsbury

The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn - Greenlee

Bloom's Best Perennials and Grasses: Expert Plant Choices and Dramatic Combinations for Year-Round Gardens - Adrian Bloom

Ornamental Grasses: An Essential Guide - Plowes

Ornamental Grasses: Wolfgang Oehme and the New American Garden - Leppert

Ornamental Grasses For the Southeast - Loewer

Gardening with Ornamental Grasses - Grounds

Designing with Grasses - Neil Lucas

Growing Perennials in Cold Climates: Revised and Updated Edition - Heger, Whitman & Lonnee

Bringing Nature Home - Tallamy

Urban and Suburban Meadows: Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spaces - Zimmerman 

The American Meadow Garden - Greenlee

The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes - Darke

Grasses: Choosing And Using These Ornamental Plants in the Garden - Grounds

Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, Darke

Manual of Grasses (The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary), Darke, Griffiths

New American Garden - 60 Case Studies, Truelove (ed)

Bold Romantic Gardens, Oehme/van Sweden

Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, Oudolf/ Gerritsen

Designing with Plants, Oudolf

Gardening with Nature, van Sweden

Perennials and Their Garden Habitats, Hansen/Stahl

Ornamental Grasses for Cold Climates, Meyer, White, Pellett (University of Minnesota)

Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, Greenlee

Timber Press Pocket Guide to Ornamental Grasses, Darke

Plantfinder's Guide to Ornamental Grasses, Grounds

Landscaping with Ornamental Grasses, Fiona Gilsenan

Gardening with Grasses, King/Oudolf