Best Ornamental Grasses for Midwest Gardens | Midwest Living

Best Ornamental Grasses for Midwest Gardens

Ornamental grasses add easy, airy beauty to Midwest gardens.
  • Add beauty with ornamental grasses

    Because of their color, texture and movement, ornamental grasses are wonderful additions to our landscapes. Even better, you get all this beauty for little work--once established, just water during drought and cut them back in early spring. And they withstand pests (even deer avoid them). There are many varieties available, so finding one to suit your garden style and growing conditions as well as your taste should be easy. Here are Midwest Living's picks for Zones 2-7 (that is a wide range, so make sure your selection fits your Zone).

    Find your Zone here

  • Fountaingrass

    A mounding plant with a lovely shape, its name refers to its graceful spray of foliage and late-summer plumes of fuzzy flowers. The white, pink or red plumes (according to variety) continue into fall and bring an informal look to gardens. Some Pennisetum self seed freely, which means they can become invasive. Although some species will reach 5 feet in height, the dwarf types like 'Hameln' generally stay below 3 feet. 'Purpureum' is grown as an annual in cool climates but has lovely purple leaves and crimson flowers.

    Size: 10 inches to 5 feet tall and 1-4 feet wide, depending on variety
    Conditions: full sun and well-drained soil
    Zones: 5-9
    Best for: its graceful arching shape and plumes

  • Blue fescue

    Blue fescue are one of the smallest of the ornamental grasses (under 1 foot tall), which makes them perfect for many different uses in the garden. Plant them at the base of leggy shrubs, in masses as a groundcover, in rows as edging, as accents or in containers. Evergreen in all buts its northernmost range, the bluish foliage looks best in early summer. Seed heads turn tan when mature; cut them off to keep plants looking neat. 'Elijah Blue' has powder-blue leaves.

    Size: 6-10 inches tall and wide
    Conditions: full or partial sun and well-drained soil
    Zones: 4-8
    Best for: its sweet little size

  • Blue oat grass

    Refined and elegant, this grass has beautiful blue-gray, fine-textured leaf blades that grow in a mound. It is stunning throughout most of the season and combines well with most perennials. In fall, brownish spikelets reach for the sky.

    Size: to 4 feet tall, 1-2 feet wide
    Conditions: full sun and well-drained soil
    Zones: 4-9
    Best for: its blue-gray color and neat appearance

  • Little bluestem

    Little bluestem is a native prairie grass that is both lovely and tough as nails. These perennials have gray-green foliage that turns bold shades of purple, red and orange in fall. It produces tan flower spikelets that turn silvery white as they age. Its fine-textured growth means it is gorgeous when backlit by the sun. Look for cultivars like 'The Blues' for bluish summer foliage and reddish fall color.

    Size: 2-3 feet tall, 1 foot wide
    Conditions: full sun and most soils
    Zones: 4-9
    Best for: its blue coloring in summer

  • Feather reedgrass

    Feather reedgrass is one of the most popular ornamental grasses. Plants have dark green leaves and narrow, tan plumes in early summer. This variety tends to grow straight and upright, giving an architectural element to landscapes even in winter. They have tiny flowers in early summer; seed heads mature to golden tan by midsummer and remain attractive into fall. 'Karl Foerster' is a popular cultivar noted for its adaptability and attractive plumes. Also look for 'Overdam', a cultivar with variegated foliage. (Pictured: 'Karl Foerster' feather reedgrass)

    Size: to 6 feet tall, 1-2 feet wide
    Conditions: full sun and well-drained soil
    Zones: 5-9
    Best for: its architectural shape

  • Switchgrass

    Switchgrass is a native grass that is becoming popular in landscapes. The perennial offers airy plumes in late summer and fall. In late summer, lightly branched spikelets appear above the foliage for more altitude. 'Heavy Metal' and 'Shenandoah' have dark metallic summer foliage and reddish fall color. 'Dallas Blues' has blue-gray summer foliage that also turns orange-red in fall. The open plumes of 'Strictum' begin to bloom earlier than other cultivars, but remain showy throughout the season. Some self-seed freely.

    Size: 2-5 feet tall and 9 inches to 3-1/2 feet wide, depending on variety
    Conditions: full sun or partial shade and well-drained soil, withstands heat
    Zones: 4-9
    Best for: attracting wildlife and fall color

  • Maiden grass

    Miscanthus cultivars are go-to choices in the ornamental grass market because of their sky-high, easy growth. Narrow, arching foliage makes a perfect backdrop to showcase other perennials. Silvery plumes look enchanting when the sun shines through them. This perennial's dramatic plumes of spikelets rise above the foliage and last well into winter. Leaves range from green-and-white striped, yellow striped, dark green and greenish white depending on cultivar. Plumes emerge at different times. (Pictured: 'Zebrinus' miscanthus)

    Size: 5-10 feet tall and 2-5 feet wide, depending on variety
    Conditions: sun or partial sun and well-drained soil
    Zones: 4-9
    Best for: its height

  • Ravennagrass

    Often called hardy pampas grass, this massive, fast-growing perennial commands attention when in flower in late summer because of its great height. It is a wonderful grass to add drama in the landscape or to hide an unsightly view. Just be sure to plant it where it can take center stage--not much else will stand up to this tower of beauty.

    Size: to 12 feet tall, 3-6 feet wide
    Conditions: full sun; well-drained, lean soil; little water
    Zones: 6-9
    Best for: great height

  • Hairgrass

    Evergreen depending on climate, tufted hairgrass gets its name from the hairlike flowers that rise above the leaves. Its needlelike leaves form mounds, then this perennial sends out airy plumes in shades of golden, silver, purple and green.

    Size: to 6 feet tall, 1-2 feet wide
    Conditions: full to partial sun; moist, well-drained soil
    Zones: 4-9
    Best for: in moist soil or partial shade

  • Purple moorgrass

    Chose a variety based on your garden size, then plant in masses for impact. It has delightful mounding foliage that turns brilliant gold in fall. The tall, delicate panicles are beautiful. Dense tufts of arching leaves are handsome spring through summer and offer good fall color.

    Size: 2-7 feet tall and to 1 foot wide, depending on variety
    Conditions: full to partial sun, moist soil
    Zones: 5-9
    Best for: bold shape and fall color

  • Northern sea oats

    This fast-spreading species is loved for its seed heads, which hang off the stems and look like bronze-color wind chimes, which are attractive in fresh or dried arrangements. Leave the plants standing in winter if you like. But cut off the seed heads in fall to keep this prolific self-seeder tamed.

    Size: 3 feet tall, 2 feet wide
    Conditions: full to partial sun, well-drained soil
    Zones: 5-9
    Best for: lovely seed heads in fall

  • Japanese forestgrass

    This low-growing, mounding plant has bright yellow, green-striped leaves, making them perfect for brightening shady spots in gardens. From late summer to midautumn, it bears needlelike, pale green spikelets.

    Size: 14 inches tall, 16 inches wide
    Conditions: partial shade and well-drained soil
    Zones: 5-9
    Best for: adding bright color to shade gardens

  • Cordgrass

    A spreading prairie grass that thrives in moist or wet soils, it's a good choice to plant along a pond or stream. Pale green spikelets top the arching green leaves by autumn.

    Size: to 5 feet tall, 3 feet wide
    Conditions: full sun and moist soil
    Zones: 8-11
    Best for: moist or even wet soils

  • Fiber opticgrass

    This tender perennial will have to be used as an annual in the Midwest. But its fine texture and low, mounding growth make it perfect for containers. And watch how it catches eyes with its slender, bobbing blades tipped with ball-like seed heads.

    Size: to 12 inches tall, to 8 inches wide
    Conditions: Full to partial sun and moist soil
    Zones: an annual
    Best for: its unusual appearance

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