What are ornamental grasses?

boy mowing lawn
There are 21 million acres of grass lawns in the United States.
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­The grass family, or Gramineae, is one of the largest among all plants, comprised of more than 10,000 species. Cereal varieties, such as corn, barley and oats, make up essential parts of our diets. But grass probably doesn't pop into your mind when you're thinking about food. Most likely, grass conjures up images of pristine lawns of Bermuda or Kentucky bluegrass with perfectly edged borders. Or maybe you recall the backbreaking labor of mowing, weeding and fertilizing those plots during the steamy summer months.­

Whatever the case, we certainly pour a lot of energy and money into maintaining healthy, green yards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans spend between $400 and $700 per year on lawn care alone. That expense includes the heavy watering often required, as well as the 70 million pounds (31 million kilograms) of pesticides we collectively apply to our grass to protect it [source: EPA]. Why bother with turf grass? The 21 million acres of grass lawns in the United States help hold soil in place and filter storm water [source: EPA].


­However, in recent years the value of manicured lawns has come under scrutiny in the face of global climate change. Much of what we put on our grass to protect it is harming the environment. Pesticides and insecticides can leach­ from soil into the groundwater supply. Lawn designs may facilitate rainwater runoff that causes flooding and erosion [source: EPA]. Additionally, gas-powered lawnmowers and other equipment release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

But what can you do with your yard if you don't cover it with grass? Wouldn't a grassless plot stand out as a drab eyesore and incite complaints among neighbors? Not necessarily. You can transform the appearance of your lawn while reducing its environmental impact. Consider making the switch to switchgrass or other ornamental grasses.


Uses and Benefits of Ornamental Grasses

pampas grass
Ornamental pampas grass is often used for screening purposes or creating borders.
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­The term ornamental implies that these varieties of grasses serve no purpose other than decoration, akin to garden gnomes or sundials. In ­actuality, ornamental grasses have more potential uses than turf grasses. Depending on how you wish to landscape your yard, you can cultivate them as ground covers, borders, screens, accents and container gardens.

In addition to their versatility, ornamental grasses cover a broad palette of colors, textures, blooms and heights. Zebra grass stems are striped with gold and pale green; blooming pink Muhly grasses look like giant puffs of cotton candy; Indian grasses stand tall and sport proud cream plumes. Horticulturists sometimes refer to the songs of ornamental grasses composed by their long strands that rustle in the wind. You can select ornamental grasses specifically for their fragrance, flowers or other factors.


But instead of having the high level of maintenance required for turf grass, you can let ornamental grasses go wild. Put another way, tending to turf grass is like baking a loaf of bread, while maintaining most ornamental grasses is more comparable to making muffins. If you're baking bread, you must pay careful attention to knead it properly and allow it to rise for the correct amount of time before kneading it again. For muffins, on the other hand, you simply mix the batter and bake.

Why are ornamental grasses usually the easier of the two to manage? Ornamental grasses are known for their hardiness. They generally withstand harsh weather, disease and pests well. Once you establish ornamental grasses in the appropriate type of soil, sunlight exposure and rainfall, they need little water or fertilizer to grow. A majority of ornamental grasses you'll find are also perennials, which means they'll come back every year. Aside from an annual pruning to prepare for the spring, you can leave your clippers in the garage.

­As with other plants, ornamental varieties thrive in specific hardiness zones and soil and sunlight conditions. In addition, these plants divide into cool and warm season categories. Cool season grasses grow best when planted in the early spring during wetter conditions, while warm season ones favor hotter, drier climates.

Ornamental grasses are also divided into clumpers or runners, which determines how the plants will spread out and affect the final appearance of your garden. Clumpers, such as towering pampas grass, have root-ball structures that cause the grasses to grow outward from the center. Because these grasses remain compacted in one clump, they're easier to control and work well as accents among other plants. Runners have growth patterns similar to turf grasses. These ornamental grasses proliferate via rhizomes, or underground stems, that give way to new sprouts. The complex root systems make runner grasses more aggressive than clumpers and more suitable for ground coverings.

Given their diversity and ease of care, ornamental grasses have gained much popularity with landscapers and gardeners in the past decade. If you're looking for an ornamental grass to fit your fancy, visit the links on the next page for helpful resources and tips.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Cameron, Art. "Tough Grasses." American Nurseryman. September 15, 2007.
  • "Delightful Ornamental Grasses: Coming to a Garden Near You." The United States National Arboretum. Updated Feb. 11, 2008. (Dec. 2, 2008)
  • http://www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/faqs/OrnamentalGrasses.html
  • Hofer, Marie. "Bad Boys of Ornamental Grasses." HGTV. (Dec. 2, 2008)
  • http://www.hgtv.com/landscaping/bad-boys-of-ornamental-grasses/index.html
  • Holmes, Roger. "Taylor's Guide to Ornamental Grasses." Houghton Mifflin Gardening. 1997. (Dec. 2, 2008)
  • http://books.google.com/books?id=-ahtILDf2C8C
  • "Nature's Landscaping at EPA's Laboratory." EPA. August 2005. (Dec. 2, 2008)
  • http://www.epa.gov/NE/lab/pdfs/lablandscaping-factsheet.pdf
  • "Ornamental Grasses." University of Rhode Island Landscape Horticulture Program. (Dec. 2, 2008)
  • http://www.uri.edu/ce/factsheets/sheets/orngrasses.html
  • "Understanding Ornamental Grasses." University of Illinois Extension. (Dec. 2, 2008)
  • http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/grasses/default.cfm
  • Weyers, Kendall. "Growing Interest in Ornamental." Livescapes. May/June 2007.