Zone 6 ornamental grass

Zone 6 Ornamental Grass – Growing Ornamental Grasses In Zone 6 Gardens

Due to their low maintenance and versatility in various conditions, ornamental grasses have become increasingly popular in landscapes. In U.S. hardiness zone 6, hardy ornamental grasses can add winter interest to the garden from their blades and seed heads sticking up through mounds of snow. Continue reading to learn more about choosing ornamental grasses for zone 6.

Ornamental Grasses Hardy to Zone 6

There are hardy ornamental grasses that are suitable for almost every condition in zone 6 landscapes. Two of the most common types of hardy ornamental grass are feather reed grass (Calamagrotis sp.) and maiden grass (Miscanthus sp.).

Commonly grown varieties of feather reed grass in zone 6 are:

  • Karl Foerster
  • Overdam
  • Avalanche
  • Eldorado
  • Korean feather grass

Common Miscanthus varieties include:

  • Japanese Silvergrass
  • Zebra grass
  • Adagio
  • Morning Light
  • Gracillimus

Choosing ornamental grasses for zone 6 also includes types that are drought tolerant and excellent for xeriscaping. These include:

  • Blue Oat grass
  • Pampas grass
  • Blue fescue

Rushes and cordgrass grow well in areas with standing water, like alongside ponds. The bright red or yellow blades of Japanese Forest grass can brighten up a shady location. Other shade tolerant grasses are:

  • Lilyturf
  • Tufted hairgrass
  • Northern sea oats

Additional choices for zone 6 landscapes include:

  • Japanese blood grass
  • Little bluestem
  • Switchgrass
  • Prairie dropseed
  • Ravennagrass
  • Fountain grass

Ornamental Grasses: Screening and a Four-Season Show!

Q. I want to grow a privacy screen. I can get Chinese Elm Hedge for a great price, but it’s deciduous and I’m worried that it might not provide full privacy in the winter. The price for good Arborvitae is high, and I’m afraid I’d have to buy a thousand to arrange them in the zig-zag order you advise to achieve a healthy screen. Any suggestions? Thanks!

    —Jeff in Drexel Hill, PA

A. Yeah—as the title of this Q of the Week suggests (more than suggests, actually), we’re going to recommend ornamental grasses. But right now, I want to make a little detour into the first plant you mentioned, as it’s a very interesting one. Chinese Elm Hedge is actually more of a tree that is easily trained into a very tight hedge. It can grow tall enough to tower over a home, yet regular pruning will keep it at any height you choose. It is technically deciduous, but many gardeners say that the branches become so thickly intertwined, it’s still a pretty good screen in winter. The roots, however, can become aggressive when planted too close to pathways and structures and lift up paving and the like, so use common sense when deciding if the site is appropriate. Anyway, back to the questions….
Q. When we tilled to install a vegetable garden we discovered we had more rocks than dirt, and a lot of the dirt was clay. Our land is treeless, hot, barren and not very inviting. Do you have any suggestions on how to start creating a backyard that someone would actually want to spend time in? We need quick, cheap shade, color, etc.

    —-Sadie in Kunkletown, PA

The foundation plantings along the home I just purchased were ugly, intertwined with tall weeds, and overhung my walkway and steps—so I had them removed. I have always liked grasses. When I replant, could I use clumps of grasses instead of shrubs? I will gladly do the research as to which exact grasses would be most appropriate if you tell me it’s a workable plan.

    —Pat in Milford, DE

A. I think it’s a great plan, Pat! And great for the guy who wants an inexpensive privacy screen and the one who wants to start landscaping that denuded backyard. Ornamental Grasses are perennial, come in all shapes and sizes—including heights appropriate for screening—grow fast, tolerate all kinds of soils and climes, have exceptionally dramatic four-season interest, and as acclaimed garden writer and natural landscape designer Rick Darke notes, they also move, make wonderful sounds and play great tricks with light.
And your offer to do local research is right on the money. There’s a VERY wide range of grasses out there and you should see what your local nurseries and extension office recommend before you make your final choices. I’ll discuss a few tall standouts for screening use right now; all are clumping grasses whose roots stay well behaved, and all will survive winter in their indicated USDA Zones. Again, there are lots of other types, including smaller specimens for those foundation plantings. This is just a sample of the best types for tall display:

  • Switch grass (Panicum virgatum). A Rick Darke favorite. Six feet tall, with blue-green to purple stems, adorned by foot and a half tall flower stalks. In the Fall, the leaves turn yellow; the flowers streak red and bronze. Rick especially especially likes the cultivars “Northwind” and “Cloud Nine.” USDA Zones 5 – 10
  • Giant Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus). Another Rick Darke pick. “Its a sterile hybrid”, he notes, “and so it’s plumes can’t become a problem by spreading seed.” Ten feet in height, spreading as wide as eight feet. Now that’s a screening plant! (One website called it a “barricade”.) Can develop foot and a half tall flower plumes following a hot summer. Survives in USDA Zones 5 – 9, but may not flower in Zones 5 thru 7. Can take wet soil, even somewhat salty conditions, but may need some help with the hose in really dry times.
  • Ravenna Grass (Saccharum ravennae): Nine feet in height, not counting the big feathery plumes on top that, for me, really define these garden wonders. Leaves go from grey-green to reddish bronze in fall. Zones 6 – 10.
  • Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii): For the native plant enthusiast, a prairie grass that grows in very tight and narrow six-foot high columns and whose blue-green stems turn red in the fall. Zones 4 –10, but Rick warns that it may get ‘floppy’ in some areas and when that happens, it stops being a good screen.
  • And maybe Giant Feather Grass (Stipa gigantea), whose seven-foot tall bright green clumps are adorned by dramatic flower spikes that add great winter interest, but whose stems are too light and airy for total screening, says Rick. USDA Zones 5 to 9.

Q. On a recent show, you advised a man looking for a visual screen to plant ornamental grasses and told him he did not need to cut off the seed plumes. When we were planning our garden, a local ornamental grass expert warned us NEVER to plant Maiden grasses, because invasive seedlings will take if you don’t cut every plume off by December. So we planted beautiful zebra grasses instead. BUT we also planted one Maiden, and ten years later, we’re still digging out seedlings. Please warn that gardener!

    —Morgan in Aldan, PA

A. I don’t have to, Morgan—you just did! Seriously, when we did a big feature on these grasses back when I was Editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we ran a caution that in some conditions some grasses can cross the line from ornament to weed. Clearly that happened with you.
So listeners be warned! I love those big plumes in the winter but on some plants and in some locales, letting them wave may be ill-advised. So do thorough research first. In addition to your local extension office, there are several excellent books on ornamental grasses by the afore-mentioned Rick Darke that will guide you well; he really knows his stuff. (Click on the ‘Books by Rick Darke’ link at his homepage for titles and details.)
Oh, and also make sure that the ornamental grass you choose is a clumping variety, like those we’ve named. Some others—like Giant Reed Grass—are ‘running’ types that will spread like the notorious arrow bamboo unless they’re contained by an underground root barrier!

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Ornamental Grasses That Take the Heat

Consider outfitting your yard with some of these rugged perennial grasses that thrive in summer heat.

Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca)

Sun-loving, steel-blue foliage forms porcupine-like tufts. Flower stems appear late spring to early summer, fading to buff-tone seed heads. Plants may decline in high humidity and if overwatered. Trim clumps if this occurs; new growth will emerge as temperatures tumble. Look for many cultivars, including ‘Elijah Blue’ and ‘Boulder Blue.’

Size: 9-12 inches high and 6-9 inches wide
Hardiness: Zones 4-10
Landscape use: Mass plantings (space tightly), edging for driveways or paths, in rock gardens
Tolerates: Drought, poor soil, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Black-Eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Showy Autumn Sedum, roses

Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)

Fine, metallic blue foliage forms tufts larger than Blue Fescue. Plants thrive in full sun to light shade. Best color develops in dry soils and full sun. Flowers appear in early summer and ripen by fall.

Size: 2-3 feet high and 2-2.5 feet wide
Hardiness: Zones 4-11
Landscape use: Ground cover mass plantings, specimen plant in mixed plantings, edging plant, rock gardens
Tolerates: Drought, deer, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Junipers, Dwarf Blue Spruce, Penstemon, Purple Coneflower, Showy Autumn Sedum, spring flowering bulbs

Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

A California native, Deergrass boasts dense leaf clusters that tend to arch and weep by summer’s end. Foliage starts bright green and fades to a straw tone in autumn. Purple- and yellow-tinged flower stems appear in fall, soaring above foliage 2-3 feet.

Size: 3-6 feet high and 2-3 feet wide
Hardiness: Zones 6-11
Landscape use: Low water-use gardens, dry slopes, naturalized planting areas, back-of-border plants
Tolerates: Drought, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Penstemon, Ceanothus, Purple Coneflower, Russian Sage

Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora’Karl Foerster’)

Strongly upright, narrow growth makes this grass an ideal choice for small gardens. Plants thrive in full sun, but appreciate light afternoon shade in hottest regions. Flowers arise in a purple-tan hue in early summer, ripening to gold in autumn.

Size: 3-5 feet high and 1.5-2.5 feet wide
Hardiness: Zones 4-11
Landscape use: Rain gardens, erosion control, mass plantings, adding vertical interest to small spaces
Tolerates: Wet soil, heavy clay soil, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Shasta Daisy, Joe-Pye Weed, Butterfly Bush, Siberian Iris, Purple Coneflower, roses

Little Bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium)

Upright clumps of slender green leaves are tinted blue at the base. Leaves offer strong bronze-orange fall color. Bronze-purple flowers appear in late summer and fade to fluffy white seedheads. Plant in full sun in a wide range of soils – fertile, poor, dry, wet or well-drained.

Size: 2-4 feet high and 1.5-2 feet wide
Hardiness: Zones 3-9
Landscape use: Dry slopes, erosion control, rain gardens, native plant gardens, mass plantings
Tolerates: Drought, deer, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Shasta Daisy, Purple Coneflower, Blanket Flower, Butterfly Bush

Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)

A native prairie grass, switch grass offers a stiff, upright form with medium-green leaves. Pink-tinted flowers hover above foliage in midsummer, fading to beige in fall. Birds feast on seeds. Plants self-seed and spread by underground stems to form colonies. Look for various cultivars, including ‘Prairie Sky’, ‘Shenandoah’, ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Northwind.’

Size: 3-6 feet high and 2-3 feet wide
Hardiness: Zones 5-9
Landscape use: Screening, rain garden, native plant garden, water garden edging plant, back-of-the-border perennial
Tolerates: Drought, dry and wet soil, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Purple Coneflower, Blanket Flower, False Indigo, Penstemon, Butterfly Bush

Chinese Fountain Grass (Pennisetum orientale)

Leaves rise and arch gently, forming a graceful clump. Site in well-drained soil in full sun. Flower stems rise 24-36 inches above foliage in early summer and last until late summer. Leaves burnish yellow in fall. Look for’Karley Rose’ and’Tall Tales’. This fountain grass isn’t invasive like Pennisetum setaceum, the straight species. Pennisetum setaceum’Cupreum’ is another non-invasive, colorful fountain grass choice.

Size: 12-28 inches high and 20-36 inches wide
Hardiness: Zones 5-11
Landscape use: Mass plantings, specimen plant in mixed plantings, foundation planting
Tolerates: Drought, deer, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Evergreens, Russian sage, Purple Coneflower, Showy Autumn Sedum

Morning Light Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’)

Narrow green leaves have white variegation along edges, giving the grass a silvery appearance. Stems form an upright, rounded clump that tends toward a fountain-like shape. Leaves turn reddish in fall, and flower plumes become shift from coppery-red to silver-white. Seedheads remain through winter. Some species and selections of Miscanthus are invasive.

Size: 4-6 feet high and 2.5-4 feet wide
Hardiness: Zones 5-11
Landscape use: Mass plantings, specimen plant in mixed plantings, erosion control
Tolerates: Drought, deer, air pollution, black walnuts
Planting partners: Asiatic Lily, Bee Balm, roses, evergreens, Russian Sage, Purple Coneflower

Some ornamental grasses are invasive in some regions. Check with your local native plant society or state Department of Natural Resources before planting, or consult the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States.

Learn more about growing ornamental grasses.

Hardy Ornamental Grasses

Want a low maintenance, tough alternative for your yard? Look to ornamental grasses! They offer landscape interest from late spring through late winter. Think of them as a ‘buff’ evergreen for your winter garden. Grasses provide:

*Variegated or colorful Fall leaves that offer good contrast with other plants
*Color and texture in Fall
*Winter interest especially when paired with evergreens
*Low maintenance care
*A lovely solution for windy locations

What Size Do You Need?

Size varies from small, front of the border accent grasses to large focal points of over 12 feet tall. Larger grasses make excellent screens, windbreaks, or striking accent points in the landscape. Plant ornamental grasses where the wind can move through them. Movement and sound will add a new dimension to your garden.

Growing Conditions and Maintenance

Most grasses need full sun, though a few varieties are adaptable to part shade. Soil should be reasonably fertile. Water consistently during the first season to establish healthy root growth. Add 1”–2” of mulch to conserve moisture around the roots. Once established, most grasses require much less moisture and minimal feeding. Once-a-year maintenance includes cutting the old foliage back in early spring before new blades emerge.

Ornamental grasses fall into one of two categories—cool season or warm season. Cool season grasses produce new growth about the same time as bulbs and peonies, while warm season grasses tend to wait until warmer weather begins. Take advantage of these traits to complement spring flowers or hide dying bulb foliage.

Please Note: In stock availability of specific varieties listed below will vary depending upon time of season and sales. Please visit us to view current varieties.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon)

Height: 4′-7′

Spread: 2′-3′

Type: Warm Season

Exposure: Full Sun

Other Notes: A native North American Grass. Silvery-blue foliage with purplish flower spikes in late summer. Foliage turns a reddish-copper color in fall. Clumping.

Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca)

Height: 8”-12”

Spread: 8”-12”

Type: Cool Season

Exposure: Sun

Other Notes: Mound forming, blue green in color, early summer flowering, good companion for gray or purple foliage and spring bulbs

Blue Gramma Grass (Bouteloua)

‘Blonde Ambition’

Height: 30″-36″

Spread: 30″-36″

Exposure: Full to Part Sun

Type: Warm Season

Other Notes: Blue green foliage gives rise to chartreuse, aging to buff flowers. They look like little eyelashes. These seed heads remain in winter giving a completely new look of ornamental seed heads for the home gardener. A Plant Select plant.

Blue Oat Grass / Avena Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)

Height: 2’-3’

Spread: 2’-3’

Exposure: Sun

Type: Cool Season

Other Notes: Fine, spiky arching blue-green blades with oatlike seedheads. Foliage stays low and the seedheads create a fan-like appearance

Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis arundinacea)

Karl Foerster Late SummerIn Winter

Height: 3’-4’

Spread: 2’

Exposure: Sun to part sun

Type: Cool season

Other Notes: Blooms early, upright narrow habit, and fine textured arching blades. Decorative plumes fade to yellow cream in winter. One of the earliest to emerge in spring.

Varieties:
‘Karl Foerster’: green leaves

Fountain Grass, Dwarf (Pennisetum)

Exposure: Full Sun

Type: Warm Season

Other Notes: Miniature fountain grasses that mix well in beds and borders. Fuzzy seed heads appear in mid-summer and resemble ‘bunny tails.’ Foliage turns golden rust in Fall.

Variety:
Hameln

Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa)

Variety: ‘Aureola’

Leaves tinged color in cold

Height: 1′-2′

Spread: 2′-3′

Exposure: Morning or dappled light. Will also grow in full shade.
Avoid hot afternoon sun.

Type: Warm Season — truly, it will be slow to emerge in Spring.

Other Notes: Brilliant yellow foliage tinges pinkish red in cooler weather. Beautiful cascading habit. Seed heads are inconspicuous. Average water needs — but prefers consistent moisture.

Korean Feather Grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha)

Photo Courtesy Bailey Nurseries

Height: 4′

Spread: 3′

Exposure: Sun to Part Sun

Type: Warm Season

Other Notes: Unlike it’s cousin, Feather Reed Grass, Korean Feather is a WARM season grass that hails from Asia. It will come into full glory as summer progresses with blooms late summer into early fall. Plumes are purplish red when they first open and then lighten to a greenish tan. A striking wide bladed grass that is adaptable to partial shade. Flowering will be more profuse in full sun. Habit is upright and arching. Zone 4.

Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium)

Height: 3′

Spread: 18″

Exposure: Full Sun

Type: Warm Season

Other Notes: The blue-green foliage begins to take on scarlet red tones in late summer, turning a deeper red-purple through the fall. Tiny, tan seed heads appear in early fall on the top half of the stems. An improvement over older cultivars, this grass maintains its strictly upright habit through fall. Schizachyrium is a great choice if you are looking to restore an eroded site, or for a plant that will grow in hot, dry areas where other plants have a hard time surviving.

Maiden Grass (Miscanthus)

Height: 4’-6’

Spread: 3’-5’

Exposure: Sun to Part Sun

Type: Warm season

Other Notes: Vase to round shaped grasses, bloom in late summer and fall, tassels usually hang on into winter. A long-lived landscape plant. Put it where you want it because they are difficult to move once established.

Varieties:

Variegated Maiden Grass

Little Miss:
2′-3′ H xW. A very compact Maiden Grass. Blades begin to turn color in summer and finish a bright purple/red in fall. Zone 5.

Maiden Grass/Eulalia (gracillimus): 5’-6’H x 3’-4’W Rounded mounds of fine, silver veined green leaves have a graceful arch. Fall: Golden yellow foliage, plumes emerge reddish and tinge to silvery white. One of the oldest types of Maiden Grass. Zone 5 Variegated type has white & green leaves.

Morning Light

Morning Light: 4’H x 3’W, variegated white and green leaves, rounded habit. Zone 5

Porcupine (Strictus): 4′-6’H x 4′-6’W, horizontal cream banding on wide green blades. Upright, arching vase habit.

Purple Maiden Grass / Flame Grass (purpurescens): 4′-6’H x 2’W. Upright habit. Green blades in summer turn bright orange tinged red in fall and are topped with tan seed heads. A little hardier than most at Zone 4 cold tolerance.

Yaku Jima: 3′-4’H x 3′-4’W. Green foliage. Buff flowers with red tinges fade to silver. Foliage is reddish brown in Fall, fading to tan in winter

Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima AKA Nasella)

Height: 18″-24″

Spread: 18″-24″

Exposure: Full Sun

Type: Cool Season (semi-Evergreen)

Other Notes: Buff seed heads persist on bright green blades all season. Moves in the slightest breeze and creates a lovely texture. May be short-lived but does best in well-drained, poor to average soil. Heat and drought tolerant. Zone 6 — but often overwinters in Zone 5. Wonderful in containers too.

Pampas / Ravenna Grass (Erianthus ravennae)

Height: 10’-12’

Spread: 5’

Exposure: Sun

Type: Warm Season

Other Notes: Very tall—excellent specimen grass. Arching green leaves stay at about 3’. Blooms late summer, of tall silver/purple panicles rise above the foliage to 12’. Lightens to a buff color that holds all winter. Colorado’s alternative to true non-hardy Pampas Grass.

Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea)

Picta Ribbon Grass Dwarf Garters

Height: 24’-36’

Spread: 3’-4’+

Exposure: Sun to part sun

Type: Cool season

Other Notes: Warning: This grass likes to go romping through your garden. In other words—it spreads! So put it in a place where you don’t mind it wandering to fill in a space. Variegated green/white foliage is very striking. May go brown in hot weather.

Switch Grass (Panicum)

Prairie Sky Switch Grass

Height: 3’-4’

Spread: 2′-3′

Exposure: Sun

Type: Cool Season

Other Notes: This is a smaller version of switch grass. Green leaves are tipped in burgundy in early summer. As the season progresses, the burgundy color becomes more prominent. Flowers are pink, airy plumes held high above the grass. The entire grass will age to a buff color in winter.

Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia)

‘Northern Lights’

Photo Courtesy Bailey Nurseries

Height: 1′

Spread: 1′

Exposure: Part Sun (avoid hot afternoon sun)

Type: Cool Season

Other Notes: This grass would enjoy a morning sun, or dappled light location. It is a bog grass, so a moist location is key. It will reward you with delicate early buff flowers in June. Small in stature, it mixes well in perennial gardens. ‘Northern Lights’ has green/cream variegated leaves that tinge pink in cool weather.

As MotoD said, what and when with ornamental grasses depends on what the the type of grass and what the landscaper and owner of the garden intended. Most can be treated the same way.
From personal experience and in discussion with a landscape planner I have a several varieties of ornamental grasses which I leave as is through the fall and winter. It provides some visual “interest” when most of my perennials have died back and the annuals have been removed. Even though the grass and its seed heads eventually turn tan to brown it makes for a more interesting appearance than low cut back clumps and dirt. Some people prefer to do it in late fall because they feel the garden looks neater in winter with everything cut back and gone. If you wait until the first green starts poking through in the spring you can cut back the old growth and have it covered in no time with new growth.
As to worrying about taking care of it, don’t worry, LOL. My neighbor had planted one form of ornamental grass (miscanthus) that in the last few years tripled in size. They wanted to cover up the utility boxes and meters that were in front of their house. Unfortunately they got so big the meter reader could not easily get in to read the meter somewhere in there and a request was sent from the utility office for the growth to be cut back. Our neighbor over reacted a little bit and really whacked them back, in mid summer in a very hot and dry period. They are nearly as big again but have a few less seed heads/plumes. They are tough enough that it will be hard for you to kill them even if you completely ignore them once they’ve become established.

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