Showy, colorful ornamental grasses are easy to maintain
Gardening in Gwinnett

Ornamental grasses are often used in the home landscape. Homeowners love them because they're able to grow under harsh conditions and they're easy to maintain. The grasses, available in a variety of colors and textures, are also prized for their showy appearance.

Ornamental grasses are both grasses and plants that appear grass-like, such as sedges, used for similar purposes. Most are perennials, meaning they come back every year. Most are warm-season grasses - they grow rapidly during spring and summer, bloom later in the season, and go dormant in cold weather.

The grasses vary in height, from pampas grass, which reaches 15 feet or more in height, to low-growing ones that are like groundcovers. They will increase in width slowly over time. The flower plumes are often quite spectacular, and are used in floral arrangements.

There are many types of ornamental grasses, but the main ones grown in this area are pampas grass, maiden grass and fountain grass.

Pampas grass, native to Argentina and Brazil, grows very tall and forms tough clumps by spreading rhizomes. The flowers can be 2 to 3 feet long. Flowers vary in color from white to pink, and appear in the late summer or early fall. It's best to place the plants where they can be observed from a distance, to take advantage of their fountain-like appearance. A dwarf cultivar has more narrow leaves and is shorter in size. Some new cultivars have striped foliage.

Maiden grass has a fine texture and dark green leaves that grow 4 to 6 feet tall. The flowers have a rose to silvery color, and bloom through the winter. One popular cultivar has striped foliage, resembling zebra grass. The plant is very versatile in the garden, and it adds dimension and texture to a perennial border or foundation planting.

Fountain grass is grown as an annual in the northern part of Georgia even though it is really a perennial. It has arching branches, forms clumps and grows 3 to 5 feet in height. The flowers appear during the summer and can be anywhere from purple to pink in color. The plant is often used in container gardens.

Ornamental grasses can tolerate many conditions, but prefer moist, fertile, well-drained soils with full sun. The best time to plant them is in the spring. Grasses should be lightly fertilized in spring and late summer, with a fertilizer like a 10-10-10. During the winter dormancy, cut the grass back to the ground to rejuvenate it when it begins to grow in the spring. Grasses should be divided every few years. They have very few pest problems if properly planted and maintained.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.