Advertisement

180-Growing and Using Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape, with Brie Arthur

| Plant, Podcast

Ornamental grasses are eye-catching, low-maintenance additions to home landscapes that offer color, texture and seasonal interest, but they continue to be underutilized. To share the many benefits of growing and using ornamental grasses, my guest this week is horticulturist, lifelong gardener and author Brie Arthur.

 

Brie has written two books on gardening, “The Foodscape Revolution” and “Gardening with Grains,” both of which include tips on using grasses in the garden for visual interest as well as for edible crops. 

 

Brie Arthur

Brie Arthur is an expert on gardening and landscaping with ornamental grasses and grains (also a grass). Both of her books include tips on using grasses in the garden for visual interest as well as for edible crops. (photo: Courtesy of Brie Arthur)

 

Brie studied landscape design and horticulture at Purdue University in Indiana and has worked as a propagator and grower at leading nurseries. She is currently the president of the International Plant Propagators Society, Southern Region and sits on the board of the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation. As a garden communicator, Brie works with garden clubs, extension services, universities, landscapers and trade organizations.

For everything you’ll need to know to select, grow and care for ornamental grasses and grass-like plants, you can receive my brand new free resource. Growing & Using Ornamental Grasses in the Home Landscape. You can also text GRASSGUIDE to 44222 to get a copy of the free guide.

Why Ornamental Grasses Are Underutilized

While ornamental grasses have risen in popularity at botanical gardens and in public space and commercial landscaping, they lag behind in residential landscape design. 

Brie notes that the main reason ornamental grasses are not widely used in residential gardens is that they have only been promoted in the landscaping industry for the last 25 or 30 years. Even though that sounds like a long time, grasses are still relatively new to the trade. Before recent decades, ornamental grasses and many other perennials were rarely spoken of. Instead, Brie says, there were annuals and there were shrubs — and that was it.

As knowledge increases, gardeners and landscape designers have become more receptive toward grasses, perennials and natives.

 

Pink Muhly grass

Ornamental grasses may be popular in commercial landscapes but have only been promoted for residential gardens for a short time. (photo: Brie Arthur)

 

Top Reasons for Using Grasses

Brie says there is still a long way to go in educating the public on the benefits of using ornamental grasses. Fortunately, she is happy to share.

Visual interest 

Grasses are translucent and light up wonderfully in low sun or under a full moon. They add color and texture to the garden and change with the seasons as they grow, mature and set seed. Some will flower for even more color.

It’s now widely promoted to leave grasses up over the winter, rather than cutting them down in fall, Brie says, so they can continue to provide visual interest even when they are dormant. 

Additionally, watching — and even listening — to grass sway in the wind is another reason to appreciate ornamental grasses. Grasses are one of the few plants that add movement to the garden, and the seed heads really come to life as they stir in the wind.

 

Grasses and flowers in a sunny location

Visual interest is one major advantage of growing ornamental grasses. Grasses add color and texture to a garden and are especially magical when they light up in low sun or under a full moon. (photo: Brie Arthur)

 

Versatility 

There are native varieties of grass that will fit the bill for every particular environment that you have, so there’s really no place in your landscape that you can’t include an ornamental grass, Brie says.

Ornamental grasses are very well-suited for difficult soils, she notes. North American native grasses from prairies, for instance, are used to growing in hard-pan clay in dry conditions

Grasses run the gamut from varieties that are accustomed to growing in the blazing desert sun to those that grow in dense shade.

Ornamental grasses also come in a wide variety of heights. The tallest grasses can be used for screening or to delineate borders. And unlike some border plants that can grow too big and cost thousands of dollars to remove, such as evergreens, Brie says, grasses are capped at a maximum height and are not expensive to remove. 

Low-maintenance

You will never find a plant that needs less care than an ornamental grass, Brie says. In fact, the more you do to the plants, the worse off the grasses will be. 

Once established, ornamental grasses do not require supplemental watering. They do not need fertilizer either, especially deep-rooted grasses that efficiently draw nutrients up to the surface.

Soil stabilization

Few plants love to grow on a slope as much as ornamental grasses do. The roots reach down into the soil, anchoring the plants but also knitting the earth together, preventing erosion.

Benefits to the ecosystem 

Making the switch from needy plants to native grasses will reduce your landscape’s resource requirements — since natives do not require fertilizer and constant watering — and the switch also means no more applications of potentially harmful pest and disease controls. 

Grasses also provide valuable habitat for native bees and other beneficial insects, and birds use old grass foliage to make nests with. Certain grasses are also masterful at carbon sequestration, such as prairie grasses that have root systems that can grow to be 8 to 14 feet deep. 

Using a variety of grass genera and species, rather than a monoculture of grass like a turf lawn, increases biodiversity. “Diversity is the solution to so many of the problems that we humans have created,” Brie says.

 

Yellow butterfly on flowers

Incorporating a diversity of plants and grasses in the landscape provides valuable habitat for wildlife and insects. (photo: Brie Arthur)

 

Loving Ornamental Grasses and Learning Lessons

Brie says she’s been having a love affair with ornamental grasses her whole life. She grew up in the Midwest and remembers the incredible collection of various species of grasses that occur naturally near woodlines. 

As a teenager in Michigan, she would read books by landscape designer Rosalind Creasy, who specializes in environmentally friendly plantings, and was inspired to redesign her family’s own landscape with ornamental grasses that would not require regular shearing. She planted Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster” (a.k.a. feather reed grass) but also some of the ornamental grasses that were the earliest to the market and proved problematic.

Miscanthus sinensis (Chinese silvergrass) is an ornamental grass that produces seeds that grow in disturbed areas, displacing native grasses and creating a fire hazard when the foliage is dead and dry. In the Southeast, especially in North Carolina or Georgia, Miscanthus sinensis has naturalized in many places, giving native plants fewer opportunities to grow where they should.

Another example of an invasive grass is Imperata cylindrica, which is often called blood grass or cogon grass. It’s a running grass that has been banned in a number of Southern states because of its aggressive spread via both rhizomes and seeds, affecting both fields and forests. 

 

Japanese Blood Grass

Japanese blood grass is an example of a non-native grass that must be used with care due to its invasive nature. (photo: Amy Prentice)

 

But since the 1990s, horticulturists and nurseries have learned a lot. We know now to choose native ornamental grasses that will not cause ecological damage if they escape our landscapes, or to plant hybrid cultivars that do not produce viable seed, such as Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster,” which is sterile.

When Brie looked to plant something at her current home in North Carolina among small trees, she decided in ornamental grasses. This time, she chose Muhlenbergia capillaris (pink muhly grass) and Panicum verbatim (switchgrass). In the fall, she planted a pattern using long, skinny landscape plugs, which are easier to plant and more economical than mature plants.

Unfortunately, Brie only got one season out of the plants. Her region experienced an exceptionally wet year and the ground became saturated. All of her muhly grass — which does not like wet feet, particularly during winter dormancy — died. 

This was a learning opportunity for Brie. It dawned on her that she was trying to grow on flat ground the same plants that she saw thrive in areas along highways with a 45-degree grade. Those plants on slopes never sit in standing water. Her takeaways from the experience were to make her planting beds higher and to choose plants that are more tolerant of seasonal wetness.

 

Brie Arthur in her garden

Brie’s love affair with grasses continues. These days her new love is grains, also a type of grass. This large bed in her front yard foodscape is full of wheat. (photo: Courtesy of Brie Arthur)

 

Choosing Ornamental Grasses for Your Landscape

Consider which way the sun rises over your property and how much sun different spots receive. There will be a grass suited to each type of exposure, from all-day sun to dense shade.

When picking the right grass for the right spot, also consider the scale: There are all different sizes to choose from.

You can accent your border plantings, such as hollies or azaleas, with clumps of medium height or tall grasses. For example, Panicum, the native switchgrass, will be 3 feet tall once it goes into flower, while Andropogon gerardii, known as big bluestem, grows to between 6 and 8 feet tall.

 

Ornamental grass

Consider how large a grass will be when it’s mature before adding it to your landscape. (photo: Brie Arthur)

 

Along the edges of planting beds — something smaller is called for. To that end, there are a number of grass-like ornamentals that don’t get large at all — such as Liriope (lily turf), Carex (sedge), and Acorus (sweet flag) — that offer the same benefits as true grasses, which are in the Poaceae family. 

Many grass-like ornamentals are also evergreen, depending on the region where they are grown, and Carex and Acorus are both tolerant of shade and damp conditions. Acorus is also hardy in zones 5-10, so it can thrive in most wet places.

Acorus gramineus, known as Japanese sweet flag or grassy-leaved sweet flag, has a number of varieties — and Brie recommends getting them all! She likes to use them to define edges, or in containers, which don’t even need drainage holes because the plants can survive in standing water. A few highlights are:

  • A. gramineus “Variegatus” – This variety is deep green and variegated with white.
  • A. gramineus “Ogon” – This variety has bright chartreuse leaves. 
  • A. gramineus “Minimus Aureus” – This is the dwarf golden variegated sweet flag with a mat of bright green and gold that looks like lawn. Brie likes it for window boxes and notes that it is great for wet conditions and dense shade. 

What to Do When Planting Ornamental Grasses

An ornamental grass at a nursery has been irrigated regularly while growing in a well-drained potting medium with slow-release fertilizer. As Brie says, it hasn’t had to try. Before sticking it in the ground, take a few steps to improve its chances for success.

After removing the plant from the nursery pot, rough up the roots well. Breaking up the root ball will encourage the roots to grow into and acclimate to the native soil rather than just winding back around themselves and staying put in the potting mix. 

Fertilizer or compost should not be added to the planting hole, because, again, the roots will want to stay in that hole instead of reaching out to find water and nutrients. If the roots stay compact, it hurts the grass’s chances of survival. 

But do be conscious of the soil pH. If the pH level is outside of a grass’s ideal conditions, it can negatively affect the plant’s ability to take up nutrients. A soil test will tell you if you need to amend your soil to raise or lower the pH, to make it either more basic or more acidic. Alternatively, choose native grasses that are already suited to the local soil. This is easier and less costly than monitoring and adjusting pH.

Why And How to Cut Ornamental Grass 

True grasses should be cut back annually to remove dead foliage and welcome new growth. (Evergreen grass-like plants should never be cut back.)

A sign that it’s time to cut an ornamental grass is when you see new growth begin at the base. At that point, it’s safe to cut back the previous year’s growth to 8 to 12 inches tall.

Landscapers will tend to shear grasses in the fall after one frost and then take away everything they cut off — all that good organic matter. Brie points out that this can be problematic because many grasses have hollow stems that will collect water all winter and potentially rot. She recommends waiting until spring to cut, which also allows you to enjoy the foliage all winter. Even if the top of the grass has browned and died, it will continue to provide visual interest.

Grasses that are native to Midwest prairies actually regrow better if they have been burned down rather than cut down, Brie says. This could result in your neighbors calling the fire department, so if you do decide on this method, be extremely careful. Brie is planning to burn some of her grasses this year with a torch in one hand and a hose in the other.

If you are cutting, layering the cut foliage someplace in your landscape where it will be out of your way can provide valuable habitat for beneficial insects and other creatures. “You’ll be amazed at how much life ends up taking advantage of that,” Brie says.

Why and When to Divide Ornamental Grasses

Perennial clumping grasses, which most ornamental grasses are, should be divided every few years so that they continue to look their best. If they are never divided, the center of the plants will form an unattractive dead spot. As Brie puts it, they turn into a doughnut.

Brie says to avoid dividing ornamental grasses when they are dormant. Cutting up a plant during dormancy can stimulate growth at the wrong time of year. That new growth will be vulnerable and may be damaged by frost or excessive heat.

When a plant is actively growing is the best time for propagating most plants, Brie notes.

She recommends making ornamental grass divisions in mid-spring, when most grasses will be actively growing. Grasses should be dug up and split two, three, four or more ways with a sharp spade. However, digging out the entire clump of a well-rooted grass is labor intensive. Brie says you can also cut out a division from the outer edge of a clump rather than digging up the whole plant.

Dividing is important for the long-term management of ornamental grasses and it also provides you with more plants — for free!

Grains as Ornamental Grasses 

The same annual cereal grains that farmers grow for food can be used by gardeners are ornamental plantings.

Cereal grains can be appreciated for their own beauty for many months, and after they set seed they will attract and feed birds, Alternatively, you can harvest the grain for your own use, taking pleasure in knowing that it is pesticide-free and your food miles have been reduced to zero.

Many cereal grains love growing in wet soil, which is perfect for Brie’s Southeast growing conditions, and they provide the same visual interest as ornamental grasses. 

 

Flowers growing among grains

Grains can also be considered ornamental. They can be appreciated for their own beauty or grown alongside flowers for a more diverse display. (photo: Brie Arthur)

 

The biggest difference when using grains in place of perennial grasses is that they will die each year and will need to be reseeded. Alternatively, if you practice crop rotation, you can grow a different annual edible crop in the same spot the following year.

Grains have a symbiotic relationship with microbes in the soil that will improve soil fertility and growing conditions. Their deep roots act as tillers, aerating dense soil while also drawing up nutrients. These traits make grains an excellent cover crop.

When grains are spent, they can be turned in, which is the practice of mowing the grains and then working the cut foliage and the roots back into the soil, where microbes will digest the organic matter, improving soil fertility and tilth. Bries says this concept of “composting in place” has totally transformed how she gardens.

Grains can be grown to enrich the soil in lieu of bringing in outside material, such as fertilizer or compost of unknown origin. 

Questionable compost may contain weed seeds or, even worse, persistent herbicides that will kill or stunt the growth of broadleaf plants. This is a big problem stemming from grains and other grasses that are sprayed with herbicides and then fed to horses. The herbicides will remain for years even in composted manure from those horses.

 

Grains and flowers

Besides adding visual interest, grains will improve soil fertility and growing conditions. (photo: Brie Arthur)

 

If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Brie Arthur, you can do so by scrolling up the page and clicking the Play button in the green bar.

My New Comprehensive Guide on Ornamental Grasses

If you are ready to learn everything you need to know to select, grow and care for ornamental grasses, you can request my new free resource: Growing & Using Ornamental Grasses in the Home Landscape

The guide offers a comprehensive look at grasses and grass-like plants and will help you identify the right plants for your region and where they will fit in your landscape.

You can also text GRASSGUIDE to 44222 to secure your copy.

What ornamental grasses are growing in your landscape? Share with us in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 11: Plant Propagation Basics, with Brie Arthur

Episode 79: Foodscaping: How to Create an Edible Landscape, With Brie Arthur

Episode 99: Understanding Crop Rotation, the Basics and Beyond, with Jack Algiere 

Episode 103: How to Create a Backyard Meadow: Simple Steps for Success No Matter the Space

Episode 133: Native Plant Design in a Post-Wild World, With Thomas Rainer

Episode 134: Bird Population Decline and What Gardeners Can Do to Help

Episode 142: Why Our Plant Choices Matter: Nature’s Best Hope, with Doug Tallamy

Episode 177: An Overview of Ornamental Grasses and Grass-like Plants, with John Greenlee

joegardener blog: A Guide to Using Cover Crops in the Home Garden

joegardener free resource: Growing & Using Ornamental Grasses in the Home Landscape.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

Growing a Greener World® 

GGWTV YouTube

GGW Episode 813: New Ways of Growing Our Favorite Vegetables 

GGW Episode 907: New York’s High Line: A Thriving Diversity of Plants & People

GGW Episode 1102: The Foodscape Revolution 

BrieGrows.com

Brie Arthur Instagram – @brietheplantlady

The Foodscape Revolution” by Brie Arthur

Gardening with Grains: Bring the Versatile Beauty of Grains to Your Edible Landscape” by Brie Arthur

“New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden” by Kelly Norris

Hoffmannursery.com 

Exmark – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

Rain Bird® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, and Exmark. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

Get my (FREE!) eBook
5 Steps to Your Best Garden Ever:
Why What You Do Now Matters Most!

By joining my list, you’ll also get weekly access to my gardening resource guides, eBooks, and more!

•Are you a joe gardener?•

Use the hashtag #iamajoegardener to let us know!