NDSU Extension - Dickey County


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Ornamental Grasses Take Root in North Dakota

Breana Kiser, Agriculture and Natural Resource Agent

Ornamental Grass,main 

With summer here and all gardeners are busy making their yards beautiful with new perennials and short term annuals. A good detail to add to your flower garden is an ornamental grass. In the latest addition of The Dirt: The North Dakota Master Gardener Program Newsletter, Laura Kourajian discusses the history of ornamental grasses and have some examples of what to add to your garden. 

Growing grass in North Dakota has come a long way from the sweeping swaths of fescues and bluegrasses that covered backyards like a fitted sheet. In the 1970s, landscape architects on the east coast of the United States embraced ornamental grasses that were growing in popularity across Europe.

Karl Foerster feather reed grass is a staple in many landscapes and gardens in North Dakota, where it has proven hardy and provides interest during our winters. However, new varieties of ornamental grasses are coming on strong. There are sedges (Carex spp.), tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus spp.), blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), switch grasses (Panicum spp.), fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.) and bluestems (Andropogon gerardii and Schizachyrium scoparium). Fescue (Festuca spp.) is still around and also comes in an ornamental form, a low growing clumping blue grass “Elijah Blue.”

Annual grasses can fill open spots in gardens, add color and often serve the “thriller” role in containers, while perennial grasses are growing in popularity in North Dakota landscapes. “Once they’re established, they’re very low maintenance and very drought tolerant,” said Esther McGinnis, NDSU Extension horticulturist. “They engage all the senses; they sway in the wind, they have motion, they make a sound.” (That special rustling sound made by the grass as it sways is called “susurration,” McGinnis said.)

There are two types of grasses: warm season and cool season. Warm season grasses are those that typically grow best when temperatures are between 80-95 degrees F and do most of their growing in the summer, and bloom in summer. Cool season grasses grow during spring and fall, when temperatures are cooler, and go dormant during the heat of summer. They bloom in spring.

Other things to keep in mind when choosing an ornamental grass, McGinnis said, are the mature height and width of the grass to ensure a planting location where it won’t get crowded or crowd out other desirable plants. Ornamental grasses should be planted in full sun, though there are a few grasses that can take partial shade, she said. And consider that grasses may have winter interest potential as many are sturdy enough to stand over the snow season. An increasing number of the newer cultivars don’t lodge, McGinnis noted. Lodging happens when the grass falls over, lying flat against the ground. If a grass is subject to lodging, cut it back in the fall. If it doesn’t lodge, leave it standing and it will provide golden winter interest in the landscape. Ornamental grasses with red coloring are starting to turn landscapers’ heads, though “anecdotally we don’t think they’re hardy enough for North Dakota,” McGinnis said.

Another consideration for landscapers: Is it well behaved or invasive? “There are some that are invasive. I’ve seen blue lyme grass take over a flower bed.” said McGinnis. Other grasses that are considered invasive include ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea, Fig. 2) and the silver banner grass that did best in Zuk’s study. The latter grass is very hardy in North Dakota, but will require a gardener’s diligence to keep it in check.

Grasses that are worth a try in North Dakota landscapes include:

Big Bluestem, 1Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii, Fig. 3), also called turkey foot because the panicle resembles a turkey foot.



Little Bluestem,2Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Blue Heaven is one type that is selected in the wild in Minnesota and propagated through tissue culture.




Sedges, 2Sedges (Carex spp.: There are about 2,000 species within that genus, and about 80 of them are native to North Dakota. Two of them – Carex pensylvanica (a good ground cover in dry shade) and Carex muskingumensis (with its interesting seed head) may matter in North Dakota, McGinnis noted.


Tufted Hair Grass, 4Deschampsia cespitosa, generally called tufted hair grass, is good for ground cover and can take partial shade unlike many ornamental grasses.



Purple Flame, 5Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’ (Fig. 6) is often called flame or purple flame and has feathery white plumes.


Blue Oat Grass, 6Helictotrichon sempervirens is commonly called blue oat grass. It has silvery shimmery blades and is easier to keep alive than the fescues, McGinnis said. It does well in sandy soil.


Switchgrass, 7Panicum virgatum, also known as switchgrass. There are only a couple that are hardy enough to call North Dakota home. Northwind has proven itself, though it may be harder to get established, said McGinnis.



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