As Ground Cover
Thanks to their distinctive, robust foliage -- and, in several cases, flowers that last well past fall -- these grasses offer a rich variety of tones and textures. They are attractive en masse or as calm backdrops for other kinds of plants.
Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge): Fine-textured 8-inch-long green leaves. Thrives in moist to dry soil, in sun or shade. Technically a sedge (Cyperaceae family), not a grass (Gramineae), but treated as an ornamental grass. Can be mowed as a lawn. Hardy to Zone 4.
Deschampsia cespitosa 'Schottland' (Scottish tufted hair grass): Dense 1- to 3-foot clumps of narrow semievergreen leaves. Four-foot arching stems create a mist of silky pale-green flower clusters (inflorescences) that remain attractive into winter. Easily grown in sun or partial shade. Hardy to Zone 4.
Eragrostis elliottii (Elliott's lovegrass): Soft 3- to 4-foot-tall clumps of slender blue-green foliage with airy ash-blond flowers. Best in full sun in well-drained soil. Extremely drought tolerant. Hardy to Zone 7.
Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue' (blue fescue): Fine grayish-blue tufted foliage grows in neat 8-inch-tall clumps. Provides dense cover when planted close together. Drought tolerant but may brown slightly in high summer heat. Hardy to Zone 4.
Festuca mairei (Atlas fescue): Narrow, flat gray-green leaves in compact 2- to 3-foot mounds. Excellent erosion control on hillsides and stream banks. Drought, cold, and salt-air tolerant. Evergreen in cool climates. Hardy to Zone 5.
Festuca rubra (creeping red fescue): Low-growing, fine green or blue-green foliage. Spreads vigorously by underground stems (rhizomes) to form a shaggy carpet. Controls erosion on slopes. Dislikes harsh sun and extreme heat. Hardy to Zone 5.
Imperata cylindrica var. koenigii 'Red Baron' (Japanese blood grass): Erect, translucent spearlike leaves that reach 1 1/2 feet tall. Foliage starts out green with red tips in spring, gradually turning completely red in summer and bright crimson in fall. Hardy to Zone 6.
Leymus arenarius (European dune grass) 'Blue Dune': Valued for uncommonly blue foliage in loose fans that brings out similar tones in blooms of other plants. It spreads vigorously by rhizomes, making it a better companion in a container than directly in a border. Drought and salt tolerant. Hardy to Zone 4.
Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass): Gracefully arching clumps of hairlike green leaves. Feathery platinum-colored summer flowers on 2-foot stems last into winter. Dormant, yet still attractive, in extreme heat. Hardy to Zone 6.
Pennisetum spathiolatum (slender veld grass): Low-growing, narrow evergreen leaves. Profuse pinkish-tan fuzzy flowers on 2- to 3-foot stiff stalks bloom from June to October. Drought tolerant. Hardy to Zone 7.
As a Focal Point
Even in a small garden, these standouts help to pace and pattern a landscape by drawing attention to key destinations. Designers use solo specimens as alternatives to man-made ornaments or fountains, especially in locations where the sun illuminates them directly or from behind.
Carex elata 'Aurea' (Bowles' golden sedge): Stunning golden foliage with color that intensifies in partial shade. Forms rounded clumps that are two feet tall and three to five feet wide. Needs evenly moist soil. Hardy to Zone 5.
Cortaderia selloana 'Pumila' (dwarf pampas grass): Lush 3- to 4-foot creamy flower plumes appear in late summer and persist into winter; 4- to 6-foot-tall clumps of narrow gray-green leaves. Hardy to Zone 8.
Hakenochloa macra 'Aureola' (golden variegated Hakone grass): Vivid-yellow bamboolike leaves, finely streaked with green that become pink in fall. Color most intense in partial shade; 1 to 2 feet tall. Hardy to Zone 7.
Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' (blue switch grass): Rigidly vertical, 3-foot clumps of metallic-blue foliage that turns soft yellow in fall. Flowers are 12 to 16 inches long and emerge midsummer. They are good for cutting and drying. Hardy to Zone 5.
Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty' (purple millet): Purple-black foliage in clumps that are 4 to 5 feet tall, 2 to 3 feet wide. Fuzzy 15-inch wine-color flower spikes and seed heads used in dried arrangements. Grown as an annual north of Zone 9.
Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' (purple fountain grass): Upright arching clumps of vivid burgundy leaves and matching foxtail blooms. Clumps are 3 to 4 feet tall and equally wide. An annual above Zone 9.
Many taller grasses group well to form translucent flowering hedges or screens that enclose outdoor "rooms" almost year-round. Although effective at blocking unwelcome views, they are less conspicuous than solid walls or fences, and their pleasant breezy rustling helps to muffle noise.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora (feather reed grass) 'Karl Foerster': Erect, unusually early bloomer. Arching green leaves form clumps up to 4 feet tall. Elegant, airy flowers -- green in spring, drying to a straw color in fall through winter -- soar an additional 3 to 4 feet. Hardy to Zone 5.
Miscanthus x giganteus (giant Chinese silver grass): Clumping 2-inch-thick canes and lush green foliage tower to 14 feet. Silvery late-summer flower tassels. Impressive throughout winter, especially in snow. Wind and salt-spray resistant. Hardy to Zone 4.
Miscanthus sinensis (Japanese silver grass) 'Yaku Jima': One of the most compact Miscanthus varieties, with narrow leaves rising to 4 feet and flowers an additional 12 to 18 inches taller. Green leaves shift to auburn in fall. Delicate flower plumes have a reddish tinge. Hardy to Zone 6.
Muhlenbergia rigens (deer grass): Vertical fans of whiplike silver-tan flowers above clumps of fine gray-green foliage. Exceptionally drought tolerant. Five feet tall, four feet wide. Like most grasses, it's rarely eaten by deer (despite its name). Hardy to Zone 7.
Panicum virgatum (switch grass) 'Northwind': Slim, upright sprays of sea-green foliage and delicate pale flowers. Drought tolerant. Striking winter silhouette; 8 feet tall. Hardy to Zone 5.
The following ornamentals make colorful team players in a mix of perennials and annuals, whether in meadow gardens, cottage-style borders, or formal beds. As with any plant combinations, it is important to check that neighboring ones enjoy similar growing conditions and are compatible in size.
Calamagrostis brachytricha (Korean feather reed grass): Plum-color late-season flower plumes that turn platinum as they dry. Superb for arrangements. Arcs of glossy green foliage. At 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide, also good in large containers. Likes evenly moist soil. Hardy to Zone 4.
Molinia caerulea (moor grass) 'Skyracer': Showy purple seed heads and airy flowers up to 8 feet tall above mounded 2-foot clumps of grayish-green leaves. Every part of the plant glows a warm yellow in fall. Easily grown in most soils, including alkaline. Hardy to Zone 4.
Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine' (switch grass): Hazy late-summer blooms atop blue-green foliage that stays upright for months after turning golden in fall. Up to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 5.
Panicum virgatum (switch grass) 'Warrior': Erect deep-red foliage crowned by 5- to 6-foot stalks of rosy flowers, which mature to reddish bronze and then buff. Strong color accent when mixed with cool-tone grasses. Drought tolerant once established. Hardy to Zone 4.
Pennisetum alopecuroides (dwarf fountain grass) 'Hameln': Manageable size for small gardens, about 2 feet tall and wide. Opulent, billowing flowers on arching stems. Combines well with blue- or purple-flowered catmint and asters. Also suitable for containers. Hardy to Zone 6.
Pennisetum orientale (Oriental fountain grass): Shimmering 3- to 4-inch mauve foxtail flowers, great for arranging freshly cut or dried. Uncommonly prolific, blooming from spring or early summer into mid-fall. Total height, 1 to 2 feet. Easy to grow. Hardy to Zone 7.