The Best Ornamental Grasses: How to Choose

By Amanda Lutz Updated February 7, 2024

Ornamental grasses can add extra depth and elegance to your lawn. These types of grasses can grow in clumps or spread across your lawn, and they’re commonly added to garden beds for decoration.

When you’re deciding what grasses to add to your landscape, consider your region’s hardiness zone, your landscape design, and the growing needs and patterns of specific grasses. In this guide, we’ll review popular varieties of ornamental grasses and provide care tips so you can cultivate a vivid, healthy landscape throughout the seasons.


Ornamental Grasses by Height

You can categorize ornamental grasses by several different qualities: soil preferences, perennials versus annuals, growth rate, and so on. It’s particularly useful to categorize ornamental grasses by height to add layers of landscaping to your garden beds.

There are three common height categories for ornamental grasses: tall, medium, and short.

Tall Grasses

Tall grasses tend to grow in clumps and can reach up to several feet in height. One of the tallest ornamental grasses, pampas grass, can reach over eight feet high. Perennial grasses grow upward and outward year after year until they reach their final size. These grasses can be a fun accent statement within your landscape or a great replacement for hedges and shrubs. Three common tall grasses are feather reed grass, white or pink pampas grass, and zebra grass.

Medium Grasses

Medium-size ornamental grasses can grow between 18–30 inches tall. These spreading plants grow in thin clumps and have stout growths. Medium grasses can grow in containers and garden beds or along walkways to add more personality to your landscape. Three popular types of medium grass are Peruvian feather grass, also known as Jarava ichu, Mexican feather grass, ‘jazz’ little bluestem grass, and purple moor grass.

Short Grasses

Some gardeners will add short ornamental grasses as tufts of vegetation around rock gardens, koi ponds, and small garden paths. They range in height from two inches to two feet. Most short grasses have vivid colors and fuzzy tufts, or small clusters of plant hairs. Three popular varieties are purple fountain grass, pink muhly grass, and fox sedge grass. Consider adding a row of short grasses as a decorative border in your garden beds or fill a grassy median with collections of these ornamental grasses.


Three popular types of ornamental grasses are blue fescue, Karl Foerster, and little bluestem. However, other ornamental grasses may work best in your climate. Depending on your U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hardiness Zone and preferred landscape style, you can review other options.

Blue Fescue

Blue fescue, also known as sheep fescue, is a hardy, cool-season grass that grows in clumps. This vivid blue-green grass thrives in zones 4–8 and prefers full sun and moist soil. While it can grow in intermittent wet and partially shady conditions, it won’t develop a blue color under those conditions and is susceptible to disease. Look forward to silvery, blue grass in the spring and progressively greener grass throughout the fall.

This short ornamental grass grows up to 10 inches tall and slowly grows outward, typically past 10 inches. Use this grass to line the front edges of your garden bed or the corners of your patio.

Feather Reed

Feather reed is a perennial, hardy grass that grows in zones 4–11. It requires full sun exposure and moist soil to thrive and can grow up to three feet tall and two feet wide.

Space bunches of this large ornamental grass two or three feet apart if you add it to your landscape so it has plenty of room to grow. Feather reed grass blooms with pink and purple flowers in the summer and fall, making it a colorful addition to any sunny landscape.

Of all the different feather reed grasses, Karl Foerster feather reed grass is a popular variety due to its dramatic tufts and upright, orderly growth.

Fountain Grass

Fountain grass is a clumping, warm-season plant that grows well in zones 4–10. Depending on the type of fountain grass you select, expect to see grass that grows between one foot and four feet high. It grows best in full sun and dry soil, though it can handle moist and well-draining soil.

The plant sprawls in graceful arches with tufts of pinkish or copper flowers. It blooms in the summer and can turn coppery gold in the fall, so expect vibrant colors throughout the seasons.

Fox Sedge Grass

This medium-size ornamental grass grows up to 3 feet tall in full sun and moist soil, and it does well in zones 3–8. It’s also deer-resistant, making it a great option for landscapes that need hardy plants. You can add fox sedge to any place in your garden where you want vibrant green grass, but space it 18 inches from other plants so it has plenty of room to grow.

Little Bluestem

Add dramatic coloring to your landscape with little bluestem, a clumping ornamental grass that starts as a lurid blue-green in spring and summer before transforming into a deep red with white tufts as the months get colder.

This plant can grow practically anywhere and is found in zones 2–10. It’s drought-resistant and low-maintenance thanks to its deep root system, which can help it absorb water deeper in the soil even if the surface conditions are dry. Little bluestem can grow up to three feet tall, and bigger varieties, such as big bluestem, reach even higher.

Pampas Grass

Pampas grass is a tall ornamental grass that can tower over other plants in your landscape. The tufted blooming clusters of seed heads at the top of each clump grow up to three feet tall themselves, not including the grassy leaves underneath. This grass grows in zones 7–10 and does best in environments with full sun and well-draining soil.

While pampas grass is a beautiful and popular ornamental grass, it’s considered an invasive species that can harm the environment it’s grown in, spreading its seeds across your lawn or the wider neighborhood. We recommend consulting your HOA or local extension office before adding this plant to your garden.

Peruvian Feather Grass

A fine, medium-size grass, Peruvian feather grass is light green and has thin white tufts in the summer. You can plant it directly in the soil or containers for a decorative element in your outdoor living space. Peruvian feather grass grows best in zones 8–10.

This grass is a great option for beginner gardeners because it grows well in full sun or light shade, can handle different soil types, and is drought- and deer-resistant. It’s also a good grass for planting under oak trees, where many plants struggle to thrive.

Pink Muhly Grass

Pink muhly grass is a sprawling clump of dark green, warm-season grass that reveals fuzzy pink panicles, or loose clusters of flowers, in the fall that eventually fade during the winter. The blooming panicles look like airy pink clouds or cotton candy and can add a whimsical touch to your garden. This hardy ornamental grass is drought-tolerant and deer-resistant, and it can grow in any well-draining soil in zones 6–9. Gardeners frequently add pink muhly grass to garden beds and container gardens.

Purple Moor Grass

This perennial grass is a short, cool-season grass that grows in clumps and comes in a wide range of varieties, though many gardeners prefer the variegated moor grass for its various colors and forms. Its dramatic leaves have a pointed end, with spiky purple or pink flowers. 

This grass grows best in zones 4–9. In colder climates, this grass flourishes in full sun, but it requires partial sun and shade in hotter climates. Purple moor grass is popular because it blooms in late summer and can add color to a fading landscape.

Zebra Grass

Zebra grass has striking horizontal stripes across each leaf, giving it its name. It grows in clumps and develops bright pink plumes in the summer. Zebra grass can become very tall, sometimes reaching seven feet high. If you want to plant multiple zebra grasses, space them three to four feet apart to account for their final width of four to six feet. These plants do best in zones 5–9, prefer full sun and moist soil, and are drought-resistant once they develop deep roots after approximately two seasons of growth (from spring to fall).


Key Selection Factors

To select the right ornamental grasses for your landscape, consider factors like the plant’s size, color, growth, and invasiveness qualities. Another important consideration is your USDA Hardiness Zone, which factors in your regional climate throughout the seasons.

Growth Habit and Rate

Not every grass will thrive in your landscape, even if they’re rated for your zone. Some grasses require full sun and frequent access to water, while others need partial shade and don’t need much water to survive. Look for grasses that naturally thrive in your landscape’s conditions by contacting your local extension office or working with local landscaping experts.

Additionally, the growth rate of grasses matters. Select fast-growing or spreading grasses if you’re remodeling your entire landscape because it’s much easier to cover your landscape quickly. Alternatively, slow-growing grasses are low-maintenance for decorative containers because they won’t outgrow them or require repotting.

Hardiness Zone

The USDA has developed a map identifying hardiness zones across different states and regions. Use this map as a shortcut to help you decide which grasses will grow best in your yard.

For example, most of the northern United States falls in hardiness zones 4–6, where blue fescue is commonly grown. The southern half generally falls in zones 7–9, where grasses like Peruvian feather grass and pink muhly grass can thrive in the heat. But versatile grasses like feather reed grass can grow in both areas.

Height and Width

The height and width of each ornamental grass will impact where you place the grass. For example, taller grasses tend to sit at the back of your garden beds for a layer of depth, while short grasses can accent the front edge of the garden beds or border walkways.

Understanding the width of the plant once it’s mature is also helpful if you’re planting multiple types of grasses and want to space them appropriately without overcrowding them.

Invasiveness

Pampas grass is considered invasive in areas such as California and can quickly spread out of control. You can safely introduce some invasive grasses to your landscape by trimming the grass back and using landscaping edging to curtail growth, but we recommend keeping them in containers.

Texture and Color

The texture and color of your ornamental grasses depend on your personal preferences. You can choose from various blue-green leaves, pastel plumes, and coppery cool-season grasses. 

We recommend paying attention to the warm and cool colors of your ornamental grasses. Some plants stay a bright green throughout the year or turn a showy red or silver during winter, and they can add color to an otherwise overwintered landscape.


Design Uses

While ornamental grasses are typically placed in garden beds or other areas around your lawn, they can be used for other design functions. Below are some common ways to incorporate ornamental grasses into your landscape.


Maintenance Tips

Ornamental grasses are often low-maintenance but require some seasonal and ongoing care. For fast-growing grasses or invasive species, we recommend pruning back the grasses when they grow too big. You’ll know the grasses are too big if they outgrow their containers or crowd against other plants. You can also prune back overwintering perennial grasses right before the winter months.

Most ornamental grasses also require occasional fertilizer treatments. We recommend hiring a professional fertilizer service or comprehensive lawn care service that can fertilize the grasses and recommend the right schedule and treatments for each species. You can also create do-it-yourself (DIY) grass fertilizers by researching your ornamental grasses, as each variety will have different needs, and your property’s soil will require different supplemental nutrients.

Once your ornamental grasses mature, which looks different for each type of grass, you can also divide and propagate them. Carefully dig up the root ball and divide the grass into separate chunks, gently detangling the roots and leaving each new plant with a healthy root structure. You can immediately replant the root balls by following the same planting and spacing processes you did when you originally planted the grass.


Our Recommendation

Ornamental grasses can be a beautiful addition to your landscape, but choosing ones that will flourish is important. Consider your hardiness zone, location’s growth conditions, and landscape’s overall design. We recommend selecting your grasses from a reputable local nursery to give your plants a healthy start and hiring a professional lawn care service to manage all the seasonal maintenance and care tasks.


Ornamental Grasses FAQ

Do ornamental grasses spread quickly?

Some ornamental grasses spread quickly, such as pampas grass and liriope spicata. Grasses that grow rhizomes instead of clumps tend to spread the fastest.

What ornamental grass stays green all year?

Evergreen ornamental grasses stay green all year, not just during the typical growing season. One popular variety of evergreen ornamental grass is sedge grass.

Is there an ornamental grass that’s evergreen?

Ornamental grasses such as sedge, pampas grass, and black mondo grass are popular evergreen varieties.

Should you cut back ornamental grasses in the fall?

Hold off on trimming ornamental grasses for aesthetic reasons in the fall and wait until late winter or early spring before the grasses start to grow again. However, you can cut back rhizomatic grasses, such as switchgrass, in colder months.

How often should ornamental grasses be divided?

Ornamental grasses should be divided once every two or three years. You can tell they’re ready to be divided if they have a hollow center in the clump of grass.