Conversations about grass, do not usually include the use of ornamental grasses. Discussions about grass usually involve the trials and tribulations of maintaining turfgrass and either how green and healthy it looks or the brown spots and insects that may affect it. While attractive turfgrass can impact much of your time and perhaps money, other types of grasses to include in your garden that are less problematic are native ornamental grasses. Ornamental grasses can add color, texture, and interest in your landscape.
Characteristics of Ornamental Grasses
There are characteristics to consider before you select an ornamental grass for your garden. Ornamental grasses can be annuals or perennials, evergreen or deciduous and warm or cool season. Annual grasses will only last one season, so if you are looking for a lasting impact, select a grass that is a perennial which will last for years. While evergreen grasses can be like a small shrub in the landscape, deciduous grasses have browned foliage over winter which may hold their shape and flower stalks providing winter interest in the landscape.
Like any plant for your landscape, it is important to consider the growth form and the mature size. Ornamental grasses can come in “three sizes,” or small, medium, and large. While ornamental grasses can have a range of sizes, the ultimate size can be dependent on environmental considerations including available water and nutrient availability.
Native Ornamental Grasses
There are several native ornamental grasses that you can include in your landscape beds. Native ornamental grasses that have a small size include Elliott’s Lovegrass (Eragrostis elliottii) which gets to 1-3 feet tall and wide with tan year-round flowers. Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) has the same size range and has small red/purple flowers year-round and grows best in hot dry sites. Both are full-sun plants and probably would do best in well-drained soils.
While it is important to think about the ultimate size of the plant, ornamental grasses can sometimes occupy a width that may exceed its height. A medium sized ornamental grass, Florida Gama Grass (Tripsacum floridana) may only be 2-4 feet tall but can spread 4-6 feet wide. It flowers yellow spring through summer in full sun. It can tolerate more water so if you have a space in your garden that stays wet, Florida Gama Grass may be a good choice for you.
Finally, tall grasses include Fakahatchee Grass (Tripsacum dactyloides) which gets to 4-6 feet tall and wide. It has flowers spring through summer which are cream/orange/red/yellow. It tolerates standing water and is larval food for the Byssus Skipper butterfly. One of my favorites is Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) which has a smaller footprint. It grows to 2-5 feet tall and only 2-3 feet wide. It has lovely, wispy pink flowers over the foliage in the fall and can tolerate drought and flooding.
Pruning and Care
If you select grasses that go dormant in the winter (deciduous), you should wait to prune them back until just as the new blades begin to grow in the spring. It is unattractive to have grasses cut back in the early winter after they have gone dormant, but that practice also can open the crown up to cold winter temperatures and water which can be a problem for survival of ornamental grasses. Take advantage of the attractive shape and flower stalks of ornamental grasses over winter. While not all maintain a great shape, careful selection can lead to plants that meet your needs.
For More Information
Hopefully, you’re considering adding native grasses to your landscape. You can visit these grasses in person by visiting the UF/IFAS Extension Sumter County Demonstration Garden just outside the Sumter County Extension Office.