Ornamental grasses zone 4

Popular Turf Varieties

A comparison chart of types of lawns By Scott Cohen

When choosing the best lawn variety, first select grasses that will thrive in your local environment and specific site conditions (sun, shade, etc.) From these choices, pick one that will best suit the needs of your whole family, including children, adults and pets. The most important factor to consider in selecting a lawn grass is its ability to survive the intended use of the yard. The first consideration is sunlight. Is there adequate sunlight in the garden space to support shade-intolerant varieties? The second big consideration is whether the local climate favors cool-season or warm-season turf varieties. You’ll also have to consider whether you want to plant grass seed or have sod installed for an instant lawn.

Lawn Grass Comparison Chart


Tall fescue*






For better fill-in properties, add 15% Kentucky Bluegrass.

Dwarf tall fescue*






Tolerates a short mowing height.

Double-dwarf fescue

Sun; tolerates light shade





Not recommended for active play or large pets.

Hybrid Bermuda



Warm season



Not suitable for shaded areas.

St. Augustine

Tolerates shade


Warm season



Very sensitive to chemical weed controls.

Kentucky Bluegrass*

Sun to semi-shade


Cool season



Avoid hot full-sun exposure.

Perennial ryegrass*




Does not self-repair; plan to spot seed.

Zoysia grass



Warm season


Requires annual dethatching.

Seashore paspalum


Moderate; highly salt tolerant

Warm season



Trails aggressively; weekly edging required.

Creeping red fescue

Sun to semi-shade


Cool season



No mowing required.

*The performance of these grasses can be enhanced by mixing with other grass varieties.

As an example, let’s say you want to use a “tough” grass to accommodate an active sports playing family. The “toughest” grasses (considering only that characteristic) are the sports-turf grasses like common Bermuda, hybrid Bermuda or zoysia. These grasses have a trailing growth habit and handle heavy foot traffic better than cool-season grasses (like fescues). They also tend to fill in bare areas caused from heavy foot traffic or dog urine spots more quickly, and they have a higher salt tolerance (urine). Good choice right? Not so fast. These grasses grow very poorly in the shade. No matter how inherently tough these grasses are, they are simply unsuitable in shady areas. This is true whether the shade is due to trees, the sun’s angle as seasons change, or compass location (north and east facing locations are cooler and more shaded than areas facing west or south ). Furthermore, these varieties are only “tough” during their growing seasons: spring, summer, and fall. They go dormant (turn brown and do not grow) during cooler winter months. When grasses are in a dormant state, foot traffic can quickly wear a muddy path through the turf thatch.

Sun & Shade Grasses

For sunny areas where winter dormancy is acceptable, the best lawns are warm-season turf varieties like Bermuda, hybrid Bermuda, kikuyu and zoysias. These trailing grasses are excellent at filling in bare spots and recover quickly from foot traffic. They also are very salt tolerant and do not burn easily from pet urine (high in salts and nitrogen). Warm-season grasses are also deep rooting and drought-tolerant. These types of lawns that go dormant are also best for cold climate areas and can typically handle being snowbound. On the downside, because these grasses trail, plan on a little extra work every couple of years to “de-thatch” and keep your lawn well groomed.

For sunny areas where year-round green is a must, consider hardy grasses like tall fescues and dwarf tall fescues. These types of grasses are referred to as “cool-season” grasses and stay green year-round in temperate climates. They will die or go severely dormant in snowbound communities. Fescue grass varieties are primarily “clump” grasses and while they do “tiller” (spread wider), they do not actually trail. As such, they are appropriate for low to medium foot traffic. Fescues’ nontrailing growth habit can often make maintenance easier because these lawns stay in the space for which they were intended and do not invade adjacent planters. Fescues are deep rooting and drought tolerant, but not salt tolerant, so dog urine can burn spots. This is an important consideration if you share your yard with a pet. Fortunately, these unsightly spots are easy to seed and repair.

For shady areas, bluegrass (often called Kentucky Bluegrass) is a cool-season variety that has a higher shade tolerance than fescue. Bluegrass blends (over 100 cultivars are available) have a softer, finer blade and grow easily from seed or sod. This grass can actually fill in bare spots more quickly because it spreads by rhizomes (a horizontal underground stem that sends out its own roots and shoots) and tillers to create a dense sod lawn. A warm-season grass with a high shade tolerance is St. Augustine. This runner-type grass does well in both sunny and shaded areas.

Why are turf varieties sold under different names?

Dwarf fescue turf varieties are grown from seed by many sod farms. To differentiate their sod, these farms use different names in their marketing materials. For instance, Marathon 2, Medallion, Centurion, Elite, Bonsai and Legacy are all brand names for similar dwarf fescue turf varieties. All this name calling can be confusing. Focus on the quality and reputation of the sod farm you are buying from and forget about the brand names.

Mixed Lawns

Lawns made up of mixed varieties can improve hardiness. Most sites are a mix of conditions, so a suitable grass would logically be a mix of grass varieties. Unfortunately, sod growers produce only the most popular varieties which, except for a few, are mono-cultures. For sites with mixed conditions, planting your lawn with seed instead of sod may be your best bet. Even overseeding an existing sod lawn can help it resist foot traffic and adapt better to site conditions.

For instance, if you add 15% Kentucky Bluegrass to a fescue lawn, the bluegrass, with its spreading growth behavior and improved shade tolerance, will help fill in foot traffic and urine spots. Bluegrass and fescue blends help each other adapt to site conditions. Fescues are much more drought tolerant and deeper rooting than bluegrass, but as the roots intertwine and grow together, the deeper fescue roots actually bring water up to the bluegrass through osmosis and improve its drought tolerance, resulting in a hardier turf blend.

Seed blends of different grasses naturally adapt to a changing environment, whether it be changes from sun to shade, hot to cool, wet to dry, or season to season. A good example of a high-traffic blend is a “sports field” seed mixture containing a Bermuda grass and turf-type perennial rye grass (which tolerates shorter mowing heights).

I have a shady backyard (mostly maple trees). Are there any ornamental grasses that will grow there?

There is quite a variety of ornamental grasses that will grow in the shade. Not as bold, big, tall and dramatic as the sun-loving ones, but certainly equally beautiful. They are easy-to-grow plants that fit nicely into the more serene and subtle nature of a shade garden. Some are tolerant of drought conditions, which you might have under your maple trees. For most it would be good to supply at least an inch of water per week. Here are some ornamental grasses that do well in the shady garden:

Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). This attractive grass is one of the best for shade. It has striking gold variegated leaves with an attractive habit of falling over to one side. This plant makes a lovely companion to hostas.

Palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis). This sedge spreads to create a low maintenance groundcover for moist, shady locations. The light green leaves resemble palm fronds at the top, which gives it its common name. Grows about 2 feet tall.

Bowles’ golden sedge (Carex elata ‘Aurea’ or ‘Bowles’ Golden’). Has attractive lime-green leaves in early spring and makes a lovely companion to gold variegated hostas. Grows 2 feet tall and prefers moist shade.

Silver variegated Japanese sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Variegata’). Has white leaf margins and grows 12 to 18 inches tall. It likes morning sun or part shade.

Variegated sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’). This semi-evergreen sedge has green foliage edged in pure white. One of the newer grasses for shade, it spreads to create a low-maintenance groundcover in the shade garden.

Plantain-leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea). Grows 6 to 12 inches tall and has green leaf blades that are wider than most sedges. Among the grasses for shade, this is one of the best for tolerating dry conditions. It makes a nice companion to ferns and North American woodland natives.

Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Grows about 3 feet tall. It has dark-green, bamboo-like foliage and attractive dangling flowers in mid-summer. This grass can take quite a bit of sun and sometimes can self-seed excessively, so remove flowers in late fall. (The flowers can be used in fall cut-flower arrangements.)

Snowy woodrush (Luzula nivea). A clump-former, it grows about 18 inches tall and is evergreen, with light green leaves and clustered white flowers in May to June.

Greater woodrush (Luzula sylvatica). This evergreen, clump-forming ornamental grass has green foliage covered with silky hairs. It grows about 2 feet tall and flowers in late spring into early summer. It prefers moisture and light to medium shade, but is quite drought tolerant. It is tolerant of most soils. Makes a good companion to ferns, shade-loving wildflowers and shrubs.

Ornamental Grasses

How to Plant Ornamental Grasses

As with any other perennial, success depends greatly on soil preparation before planting and having good drainage. Ideally, the planting areas should be prepared in the fall, beginning with deep tilling of the soil. Fall tillage facilitates freezing and thawing action during the winter, and improves soil tilth and workability. If this is not possible, spring tillage is also satisfactory. Incorporate ample organic matter during the tillage process. Ornamental grasses do not require high amounts of fertilizer. Adding about one pound of a general-purpose fertilizer (like 10-10-10) during soil preparation per 100 sq. ft. of planting bed should be sufficient.

Ornamental grasses can be planted in the spring or the fall. The advantage of spring planting is to give the plants adequate time to develop a good root system before winter. Fall planting is often not as reliable without some additional precautions, particularly in years with early or severe winters. You should try to complete fall planting during August and September. Then provide a light cover of straw or hay during the first winter for best results. Apply the mulch after several hard frosts. Plants should be planted no deeper than their previous growing depths and should be well watered after planting. Maintaining uniform soil moisture around the plant hastens establishment. Plants planted too deep tend to develop root diseases or simply rot in the ground.

Panicum – “Heavy Metal”

Generally best in full sun. Will grow in part shade, but begins to lose its columnar form in too much shade, growing more openly and possibly falling over. Grows primarily in clumps, but may infrequently spread by rhizomes. Also may self-seed in optimum growing conditions, however, ‘Heavy Metal’ does not come true from seed and self-seeded plants may be best removed from a planting to preserve the uniformity of the foliage color. Cut back clumps to the ground in late winter to early spring.

‘Hameln’ Grass

A low-maintenance, non-invasive grass, ‘Hameln’ has a compact, clump-forming habit. The foliage has a fine texture and should be trimmed back in the spring to a height of 3-5″. It is drought resistant once established and does not self-sow. ‘Hameln’ does its most active growing in the warmer part of the season and also does well in cold climates. Dwarf Fountain Grass can reach 2-3 feet in height with a 1-2 foot spread at maturity. This grass is ideal for locations where larger grasses are not desired such as in a mixed perennial or shrub bed. ‘Hameln.’ This is the standard in the nursery trade due to its compact habit (dwarf, to 2 feet high and wide). It flowers about two weeks earlier than the species. Do an annual March pruning of the dead foliage to just above the ground.

Red Fountain Grass

Although not hardy in northern areas, annual fountain grass is an outstanding accent plant for the annual border. It is very fast growing and will form a large clump. It tends to be an arching, upright plant. There are green leaved and red leaved forms. The green leaved forms are easy to grow from seed and produce nice sized plants by mid-summer. The red leaved forms are propagated only by division or cuttings and are the most commonly planted producing burgundy red leaves and flower heads. Plants may be overwintered by digging them up in the fall and bringing the crowns indoors before frost. In the spring, the crowns may be divided. Cultivars to look for are ‘Rubrum’ or ‘Burgundy Giant’.

Karl Foerester

This is our area’s most popular ornamental grass. Leaf blades are 2 to 3 feet long and a deep, shiny green. Loose, feathery flowers atop 5-foot stems appear in June and are initially light pink in color. As the seed heads mature, they become very narrow and turn a golden tan color that lasts through the fall. One of the distinguishing and highly regarded features of ‘Karl Foerster’ compared to other varieties is its narrow and upright growth. At only 18 inches wide and up to 5 feet tall, a grouping creates a dramatic vertical element in gardens.

Ornamental Grasses For Zone 4: Choosing Hardy Grasses For The Garden

Ornamental grasses add height, texture, movement and color to any garden. They attract birds and butterflies in the summer, and provide food and shelter for wildlife in the winter. Ornamental grasses grow quickly and require very little maintenance. They can be used as screens or specimen plants. Most ornamental grasses are not bothered by deer, rabbit, insect pests or disease. Many ornamental grasses that are commonly used in the landscape are hardy to zone 4 or below. Continue reading to learn more about cold hardy grasses for the garden.

Ornamental Grass for Cold Climates

Ornamental grasses are usually divided in to two categories: cool season grasses or warm season grasses.

  • Cool season grasses sprout up quickly in spring, bloom in early summer, may go dormant in the heat of mid-late summer, and then grow again when temperatures cool in early autumn.
  • Warm season grasses can be slow growing in spring but really take off in the heat of mid-late summer and bloom in late summer-fall.

Growing both cool season and warm season can provide year round interest in the landscape.

Cool Season Ornamental Grasses for Zone 4

Feather Reed grass – Feather Reed grass has early plumes that are 4- to 5-foot tall and cream colored to purple depending on variety. Karl Foerster, Overdam, Avalanche and Eldorado are popular varieties for zone 4.

Tufted Hairgrass – Generally, reaching 3-4 foot tall and wide, this rass likes sun to part shade locations. Northern Lights is a popular variegated cultivar of tufted hairgrass for zone 4.

Blue Fescue – Most blue fescue is dwarf and clump forming with bluish grass blades. Elijah Blue is popular for borders, specimen plants and container accents in zone 4.

Blue Oat grass – offering tall clumps of attractive blue foliage, you can’t go wrong with blue oat grass in the garden. The variety Sapphire makes an excellent zone 4 specimen plant.

Warm Season Ornamental Grasses for Zone 4

Miscanthus – Also called maiden Grass, Miscanthus is one of the most popular cold hardy grasses for the garden. Zebrinus, Morning Light, and Gracillimus are popular varieties in zone 4.

Switchgrass – Switchgrass can get 2- to 5 foot tall and up to 3 feet wide. Shenandoah and Heavy Metal are popular varieties in zone 4.

Grama Grass – Tolerant of poor soils and cool temps, both Side Oats Grama and Blue Grama are popular in zone 4.

Little Bluestem – Little Bluestem offers blue-green foliage that turns red in fall.

Pennisetum – These small fountain grasses typically don’t get larger than 2-3 feet tall. They may need extra protection in zone 4 winters. Hameln, Little Bunny and Burgundy Bunny are popular in zone 4.

Planting with Zone 4 Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses for cold climates require little maintenance. They should be cut back to 2-4 inches tall once a year in early spring. Cutting them back in autumn can leave them vulnerable to frost damage. Grasses provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife in the winter. Not cutting them back in early spring can delay new growth.

If older ornamental grasses begin to die in the center or just aren’t growing as well as they used to, divide them in early spring. Certain tender ornamental grasses, like Japanese Blood grass, Japanese Forest grass and Pennisetum may need extra mulch for winter protection in zone 4.

Japanese forest grass (Photo from Flickr by Megan Hanson)

When we think of ornamental grasses, visions of sun-kissed meadows and sky-blue prairies come to mind. But some grasses and grassy look-alikes hail from shadier parts, and in the wild, they’re found along woodland streams, on cool mountainsides or on moody moors. With their grassy blades, airy plumes and sometimes variegated or golden foliage, they offer a variety of textures and colours in the shade garden. Here are five to try and one worthy wannabe. (Dimensions are height x width.)

Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium and cvs.)

It’s hard to know what’s more beautiful about this native grass: its graceful, bamboo-like blades or the shimmery, tan to bronze flowers that flutter in the wind. Although the species can self-seed prolifically, a new cultivar with green-and-white variegated foliage called ‘River Mist’ is more restrained. Tolerates dry shade. 40 x 24 in. (1 m x 60 cm), Zone 5

Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra)

Once you’ve seen a woodland border edged with cascading mounds of Japanese forest grass, you’ll want your own. This elegant grass grows best in moist soil; the white variegated ‘Albostriata’ does better in part to full shade than does the chartreuse variegated ‘Aureola’, which appreciates more sun. 24 x 28 in. (60 x 70 cm), Zone 5

Millet (Milium spp. and cvs.)

Not to be confused with the burgundy-leaved ornamental annual millet seen in fall containers, this is a millet of a different colour, form and disposition. The most common one is M. effusum ‘Aureum’, or golden wood millet. Grown for its yellow spring foliage, it’s a good edger in cool, moist locations. 14 x 10 in. (35 x 25 cm), Zone 5

Moor grass (Molinia spp. and cvs.)

Light and frothy, moor grasses prefer sun but tolerate part shade. They vary in height, from the imposing ‘Skyracer’ (7 ft. x 32 in. / 2 m x 80 cm) to the compact ‘Moorhexe’ (24 x 24 in. / 60 x 60 cm) and ‘Variegata’ (24 x 18 in. / 60 x 45 cm). Site these grasses against a background of dark-leaved plants or where the softly arching stems will be backlit by the setting sun or dawn’s early rays. Zone 4 (‘Skyracer’), Zone 3 (‘Moorhexe’ and ‘Variegata’)

Blue moor grass (Seslaria caerulea)

This easygoing clumping grass adds a welcome touch of grey-blue foliage to the partly shaded garden, providing a perfect colour echo for hostas such as ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Blue Angel’. 6 x 10 in. (15 x 25 cm), Zone 4

Faux grass: Sedge (Carex spp. and cvs.)

Faux grass: Sedge (Carex spp. and cvs.) looks like a grass and acts like a grass; It’s a grass-loving shade gardener’s salvation. Tough, beautiful and available in a wide variety of colours and forms, from the quirky cinnamon-tufted leatherleaf sedge (C. buchanii) to the coveted Bowles Golden (C. elata ‘Aurea’), sedges are must-have plants for the shade garden. Use them as groundcovers, edgers or in groups, Zones 4 to 6.


Read more about ornamental grasses on Garden Making

  • Ornamental grasses in bloom
  • Benefits of small ornamental grasses
  • Ornamental grass bomb

I have a few ornamental grasses in my yard — Blue Fescue, Ribbon Grass and Switch Grass. I’ve been on the hunt to find more grasses that likes shade. Well, there aren’t many that are suitable in Midwest zones AND like shade.

ribbon grass

What I love about ornamental grasses is that they are not hard to grow, are perennials and don’t require much attention at all. My kind of plant! LOL

Ornamental grasses add variety to your garden by adding movement and sound. They look especially good against dark backgrounds and can add a vertical element to your garden landscape. I leave mine standing until spring — the birds love to perch in them and eat the seed heads during the winter months.

What kinds of ornamental grasses do you grow?

If you would like to add ornamental grasses to your garden, consider these FACTS:

  • Extremely adaptable
  • Grow in poor soil conditions better than most other garden plants
  • Require little maintenance
  • Seed heads and foliage add winter interest
  • Come in many heights, colors, textures
  • Dried grass can be used decoratively indoors and out
  • Prefer 3-5 hours of direct sun each day (shade-tolerant varieties may grow slower and may not bloom)
  • Mostly pest-resistant

Grasses can also be grown in containers and are best planted in spring.

Grasses Suited for Dry Gardens

Big Bluestem (Andropogan gerardii)

Switch Grass (Panicum virigatum)

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Grass Suited for Moist Gardens

Maiden grasses like Variegated Japanese Silver Grass and Morning Light (Miscanthus varieties)

Northern Lights (Deschampsia cespitosa)

Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora)

Shade Tolerant Grasses

Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)

Korean Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha)

??? Complete list of grasses suitable for growing in Midwest zones of 3, 4 and 5.

Learn much more about ornamental grasses at Birds and Blooms:

The Versatility of Ornamental Grass

Top 10 Ornamental Grasses

Make Waves with Ornamental Grasses

Fact Source: Colorado State University Extension, www.ext.colostate.edu

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