By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
Ornamental grasses are gorgeous, eye-catching plants that provide color, texture and motion to the landscape. The only problem is that many types of ornamental grasses are too large for small to midsize yards. The answer? There are many types of dwarf ornamental grass that fit nicely into a smaller garden, but provide all the benefits of their full-size cousins. Let’s learn a little more about short ornamental grasses.
Full-size ornamental grass can tower 10 to 20 feet (3-6 m.) over the landscape, but compact ornamental grass generally tops out at 2 to 3 feet (60-91 cm.), making some of these smaller types of compact ornamental grass perfect for a container on a balcony or patio.
Here are eight popular dwarf ornamental grass varieties for smaller gardens – just a handful of the many short ornamental grasses currently on the market.
Golden Variegated Japanese Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’) – This sweet flag plant reaches a height of around 8-10 inches (20-25 cm.) and width of10-12 inches (25-30 cm.). The lovely variegated green/gold foliage looks great in either full sun or partial shade settings.
Elijah Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) – Some blue fescue varieties can get somewhat large, but this one only attains a height of 8 inches (20 cm.) with a 12-inch (30 cm.) spread. The silvery blue/green foliage dominates in full sun locations.
Variegated Liriope (Liriope muscari ‘Variegated’ – Liriope, also known as monkey grass, is a common addition to many landscapes, and while it doesn’t get that large, the variegated green with yellow striped plants can add that extra bit of pizzazz you’re looking for in the smaller space, reaching a height of 6-12 inches (15-30 cm.) with a similar spread.
Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonica) – Like liriope, mondo grass retains a much smaller size, 6 inches (15 cm.) by 8 inches (20 cm.), and is a great addition to areas lacing in space.
Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) – Prairie dropseed is a fascinating ornamental grass that tops out at 24-28 inches (.5 m.) in height with a 36- to 48-inch (1-1.5 m.) spread.
Bunny Blue Sedge (Carex laxiculmis ‘Hobb’) – Not all sedge plants make suitable specimens to the garden, but this one creates a nice statement with its pleasing blue-green foliage and small size, typically around 10-12 inches (25-30 cm.) with similar spread.
Blue Dune Lyme Grass (Leymus arenarius ‘Blue Dune’) – The silvery blue/grey foliage of this attractive ornamental grass will shine when given partial shade to full shade conditions. Blue Dune lyme grass reaches a mature height of 36-48 inches (1 -1.5 m.) and width of 24 inches (.5 cm.).
Little Kitten Dwarf Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Kitten’) – Maiden grass makes a lovely addition to nearly any garden and this smaller version, only 18 inches (.5 m.) by 12 inches (30 cm.) is the perfect fit for small gardens or containers.
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Read more about Ornamental Grass
The first of the Ornamental Grasses we’ll explore is Maiden Grass. These grasses grow in clumps and have long arching stems. In August and September, Maiden Grass will develop bronze foliage.
Maiden Grass grows to be very tall and very wide. It should be planted in full sunlight, and in well-drained soil for best results. Maiden Grass can handle excessive moisture and drought, and you shouldn’t have to worry about caring for your Maiden Grass often. It’s resistant to nearly all diseases and pests. Every three years, however, the middle of the plant will show signs of dying out. Once that happens you should divide the grass to rejuvenate its growth.
Fountain Grass earned its name from the way it falls like a fountain. The grass shoots straight up and the cascades down, giving it a really cool look. Because it grows in clumps and mounds, Fountain Grass is not invasive. It even gives growers tan, pink. or purple flowers from late summer through the fall.
There are several different types of fountain grass to choose from. Hameln, Redhead, and Burgundy Bunny garner the most attention from gardeners, and they’re our favorites as well!
While their intriguing look alone makes Fountain Grasses worthy of your garden, their ease of care serves as another major positive. They’re able to adapt to a wide variety of circumstances. Once your fountain grass is established, it doesn’t even need to be watered unless there is a drought. You can plant it in just about any soil, and in sun or light shade. Fountain Grass does prefer full sun, however, so if you have the option we suggest you plant it there.
Muhly Grass, short for Muhlbergia, leap off the landscape with their pink and purple growth. The whimsical display of color they provide seems like something you could only find in a dream.
Pink Muhly Grass grows well in just about any type of soil. As this will be a centerpiece in your landscape, it’s recommended that you plant it in full sunlight in an area where everyone will be able to see it. Just be careful not to plant any too close together. About two feet of space between each should ensure that they don’t interfere with one another. Don’t be fooled by its wondrous appearance, this is one hardy type of ornamental grass. It can tolerate drought, flooding, and in conditions with low nutrients.
Liriope, also known as Monkey Grass, provides excellent ground cover and provides protection from weeds. Monkey Grass usually grows to about a foot tall, and have purple flowers in the late summer.
As with many other ornamental grasses, Liriope are incredibly hardy. You’d have to try to kill them to ruin these guys! They’re tolerant to drought, heat, and flooding. For best results, plant it in soil with good drainage. Most people use Monkey Grass as ground cover, but it can also be grown in containers.
The wiry Blue Fescue closes out this list of Ornamental Grasses. It’s a low maintenance evergreen that tolerates a wide range of conditions, and makes for a great plant for borders or containers.
The deep blue blades of the Blue Fescue offer excellent contrast in brighter gardens. Using Blue Fescue as a border against your other perennials will create an intriguing contrast. You do need to water the Blue Fescue in the summer, and it is recommended that you amend the area with compost before you plant.
Sedge (Cyperaceae), ornamental grasses with solid, triangular leaves and less showy blooms, thrive in either partial or full-day shade. The Japanese grass sedge cultivars, Carex morrowii "Variegata" and Carex "Silver Sceptre," zones 5 to 9, are dwarf varieties. Variegata has leaves with green margins and a white center stripe which arch, forming appealing mounds reaching 1 1/2 feet. Silver Sceptre has green blades with white edges and grows in clumps to 12 inches tall.
Botanical Name: Scirpus cernuus
Height & Spread: 8-12 inches
This is one of the best low-growing ornamental grass with bright green foliage. This fine-textured specimen also grows small flowers! The plant is toxic if ingested.
Keep it on a south or west-facing window or door that receives partial to full sun.
Botanical Name: Cyperus alternifolius
Height & Spread: 12-24 inches
Not exactly a grass, but it does look like one. The tall stems of the plant grow attractive looking leaflets, which look like an open umbrella with pointy ends, giving it a grass-like appearance.
You can grow it in bright shade. Being a pond plant, it prefers constant moisture.
Botanical Name: Acorus gramineus
Height & Spread: 10-12 inches tall
This ornamental grass naturally grows in boggy, wet places in Japan, Korea, and other east Asian countries. It also gives off a very sweet smell, which intensifies when the plant is crushed.
Does well in full sun to full shade. Make sure not to let the soil dry out completely!
Botanical Name: Festuca glauca
Height & Spread: 10-14 inches
The plant has gorgeous blue-gray foliage, which has a very fine texture. The porcupine-like blades make it one of the most striking ornamental grass you can grow indoors!
To keep the foliage in the best of its color, place it where the plant gets bright sunlight!
Botanical Name: Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’
Height & Spread: 12-18 inches
Noted for its dark green foliage with upright, spire-like green stems, the plant looks quite striking in containers. It also grows yellow-green to pale brown flowers.
Avoid watering the foliage as it can cause leaf rot.
Botanical Name: Pogonatherum paniceum
Height & Spread: 12-18 inches
It definitely looks like a baby bamboo, and if you love bamboos and want to grow them in small pots, grow this one.
Pick a location where the plant can bask in the morning sun.
Botanical Name: Phormium
Height & Spread: 18-24 inches
The sword-like foliage can be a focal point in containers as the plant looks quite charming with its narrow, upright, dark red-brown leaves.
Mix some perlite or pumice in the soil for the best growth.
Botanical Name: Chlorophytum comosum
Height & Spread: 12-36 inches
Not a grass by any means, but the leaves of the plant do resemble one! It is also a great air-purifying plant and offers several other benefits too!
Botanical Name: Dactylis glomerata
Height & Spread: 4-6 inches
Though not exactly an ornamental grass, it can be a great addition in a small pot if you’re a cat owner as they love to nibble on it!
It will grow great in well-draining, moist soil!