Using and maintaining grasses

Grasses in the Landscape

General Guidelines for Grasses

Compared to many ornamental plants, grasses need few inputs to perform well. While each grass is different, there are some general guidelines when using and maintaining them. Check individual plant profiles for specifics.

Growing conditions:

  1. Most true grasses prefer full sun. Some will tolerate partial shade, but growth and flowering will be reduced. For shady areas, sedges offer more options.
  2. Grasses tend to be tolerant of variable soil and growing conditions. They're seldom picky about pH levels and will do well with a range of soil textures.
  3. Most do best in well-drained soil. Some will tolerate wet feet, but for others, poor drainage can decrease survivability, especially in winter.

Planting

  1. Soil preparation depends on the grass. Many prairie species prefer poorer soils with low fertility and moisture levels. Amending the soil, adding fertilizers, and irrigating beyond the establishment phase can cause problems. Conversely, other species such as Pennisetum thrive with additions.
  2. Grasses are sensitive to soil level. When planting, do not bury the crown. Keep the soil at the same level as it was in the liner or container.
  3. Supplemental irrigation helps with establishment, but many grasses won't need irrigation once established.
  4. Avoid late-season planting with selected warm-season grasses, such as Muhlenbergia capillaris and Pennisetum alopecuroides.

Maintenance:

  1. For many grasses, there's no need to fertilize. Some varieties will grow larger and fuller when fertilized, but others may put on lax growth that will flop. 
  2. Grasses tolerate most pests and diseases well. They are more likely to have problems in nursery or greenhouse settings—where monoculture conditions prevail—than in the landscape. Good horticultural practices (e.g., providing good air circulation, removing diseased debris, and diversifying plantings) will reduce the risk of pests. 
  3. For grasses, cut them back once yearly; late winter is ideal.
  4. With sedges, especially Asian varieties, cut back only if aesthetically necessary. Carex are slower to recover than grasses when cut back.

Liners in the Landscape Make Sense

Landscapers and designers often turn to Hoffman Nursery when projects specify plants that are hard to find in larger sizes. Our liners, while smaller than gallons or quart sizes, are well-rooted, and they’re ready to take off when planted in the ground.

There’s a good reason liners do well when planted in the landscape. The soil volume in a small container is limited, yet plants continue to photosynthesize. That excess energy is stored for future use in the root system. When liner plants are freed from their container, this stockpiled vigor bursts into action. Liners typically catch up to larger, finished plants in one or two growing seasons.


More good reasons to use liners:

  • They’re cost-effective, especially for mass plantings where you need coverage and easy installation.
  • Healthy, high-quality liners establish quickly. Worry less about replacement costs.
  • If planted early in the fall, the plants will perform well the following spring.

Hoffman Nursery can custom grow grass and sedge liners for landscape installations. If you need a plant or size that is not in our catalog or on website, let us know. We’ll be happy to give you a quote.

Fall Planting and Winter Survival

Perennial grasses in the landscape generally overwinter with no special treatment. That assumes they’re hardy in your zone and have already established root systems. However, planting warm season grasses too late in the fall can be dicey and may lead to plant loss.

Newly planted grasses can be vulnerable if they are exposed to prolonged periods of severe cold and wet conditions before they’re ready to handle winter. Here in central North Carolina, we recommend planting warm-season grasses before the end of October. Your cut-off time may be earlier or later depending on your climate.

Muhlenbergia capillaris, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, and Sporobolus heterolepis are three popular grasses that can suffer if planted too late in the season. On the other hand, we’ve planted Panicum species and cultivars (Switchgrasses) in December with no ill effects.

As with all of our growing recommendations, this advice needs to be adjusted to your specific climate conditions.

Pink Muhly Grass (<i>Muhlenbergia capillaris</i>) and a few other warm-season grasses do best if allowed to establish before cold and wet conditions prevail in Fall.
Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and a few other warm-season grasses do best if allowed to establish before cold and wet conditions prevail in Fall.
<i>Sesleria autumnalis</i>, one of several cool-season grasses that grow best when soil and air temperatures are mild.
Sesleria autumnalis, one of several cool-season grasses that grow best when soil and air temperatures are mild.

Cool Season Grasses

Cool season grasses shine when their warm season pals are just getting started or are winding down. When soil and air temperatures are mild (soil 50°-65°, air 60°-75°) and the soil is relatively moist, the cool season grasses are most efficient at their photosynthetic process. They respond with a burst of growth, followed by a flowering period. 

When temperatures rise and rainfall decreases, these grasses have a tougher time getting the sunshine-converting job done. They must open their stomata during the daytime to take in CO2, and they lose moisture more rapidly than under cooler, moister conditions. All this causes physiological stress, which leads to slower growth and full or partial summer dormancy. 

For those of us with four distinct seasons, cool season grasses usually have two periods of growth—spring and fall. Some species will continue to grow at a lower rate throughout winter. New growth typically begins in late winter or very early spring. A full head of foliage shows up by early spring, and blooms appear sometime in late spring or early summer. 

Once summer hits, with higher temps and drier conditions, the grasses go fully or partially dormant. When cooler temperatures and more moisture arrive in fall, the cool season stars are at it again with renewed vigor and bright, new lush growth. In areas of the country with mild winters, many of the cool season grasses are evergreen or semi-evergreen

For more information, see this comparison between cool and warm season plants and see a list of cool season plants we grow.

According to the Experts: Grasses That Deserve More Attention

We interviewed colleagues about grasses and sedges they believe are underused. To find out what works in different areas, we talked with a range of people. We also asked these experts why the plants they selected deserve more attention.


Stephanie Cohen taught horticulture at Temple University for many years and now gardens and consults. Known as "The Perennial Diva," she has written several books, including The Nonstop Garden, co-authored with Jennifer Benner.

  • Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’—Perhaps it hasn’t gotten the applause it deserves because the rest [of the Pennisetum] are shorter or taller. To me this is a perfect color and size.
  • Nassella tenuissima—Even though it’s a lowly annual for me, Nassella tenissima is perfectly wonderful in pots where a fine textured grass is an advantage…I love when the wind blows through it.
  • Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’—Even though there are tons of newer selections, which mean older varieties get overlooked, this is my personal favorite. I am growing this in a border and in my meadow…I compare all other Panicums to this one.

Bob Henrickson is the Horticulture Program Coordinator with the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum in Lincoln, Nebraska. He coordinates the GreatPlants® for the Great Plains program and is responsible for acquiring, propagating, and producing plants (primarily natives) for distribution to members.

  • Native Carex and Juncus species—provide a variety of benefits that are perfect for stormwater management plantings… native sedges come in a wide variety of forms and sizes for wet or dry soils, sun or shade. In Nebraska, we’ve identified more than a dozen native species that are worth incorporating in landscapes. There seems to be a Carex for any garden situation!
  • Carex muskingumensis—If there is one sedge that deserves to be planted in every garden, it’s palm sedge.
  • Carex eburnea—This plant was made for dry shade and because of its fine texture, combines well with just about any broad-leaved shade plant. It also makes an ideal groundcover as a lawn alternative or an accent plant for rock gardens.
  • Carex plantaginea—This is another native woodland sedge that deserves to be planted more. What I like about this sedge is the broad, shiny leaves, crinkled like ribbon or seersucker.

Paul Cappiello is Executive Director of Yew Dell Gardens near Louisville, Kentucky. He has been evaluating and writing about Carex for many years. Here, he picks a few standouts.

  • Carex siderostica ‘Variegata’—We planted this sedge [under a 60-year-old Fagus grandifolia] as 2.5” plugs at 18” spacing, and it was mostly filled in after two growing seasons—a complete, solid mass after three. Since that time, the mass has spread at a reasonable rate and we’ve been able to control spread easily where that was desired.
  • Carex morrowii var. temnolepis ‘Silk Tassel’—If it’s texture you’re all about, ‘Silk Tassel’ is tough to beat. Twelve-inch-tall, fountain-like masses of the finest foliage make this an excellent counterpoint to Hosta, Ligularia, and other bold-foliaged shade plants.
  • Carex appalachica—It works well in sun or shade and can take a fair amount of drought once established. It makes an excellent choice for a limited area lawn (though it doesn’t take foot traffic very well) or as a low green foil for taller, bold-foliaged plants. This sedge is not a spreader and plays well with others in the garden.

Chuck Hinkle is Garden Supervisor at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College. He is trained in horticulture and has a particular interest in sedges.

  • Carex flacca ‘Blue Zinger’—At the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, we use it in a bed that is by a road. In winter, snow (and salt) gets plowed into this area. It is deciduous, but keeps a presence in the landscape.
  • Carex pensylvanica—Pennsylvania Sedge makes a wonderful lawn alternative where there isn’t heavy foot traffic.
  • Carex plantaginea—We use this plant in a garden that emphasizes texture. The coarse-textured sedge is planted as a mass groundcover next to an area of fine-textured Liriope.
  • Juncus tenuis—Need I mention that this is one tough, tolerant plant? Sun or shade, dry, poor, compacted soil—this plant is useful for those areas where nothing else will grow.

Jesse Turner is a landscape architect and North Carolina native. He practices in central North Carolina and teaches landscape architecture at North Carolina State University. His specialties include designing for public spaces, design of children and family environments, and use of native and adapted plants.

  • Carex pensylvanica—This Southeastern native has great potential because it can provide similar qualities designers seek when they specify lawns or masses of Liriope groundcover.
  • Acorus calamus—Sweet Flag is not a new plant, but it is also not one that immediately comes to mind for designers…it is tough, hardy—perfect for wetlands and aquatic shelves where establishment is difficult due to intermittent moisture conditions.
  • Sorghastrum nutans—Indian Grass is simply beautiful in flower. Its seed heads stand above its foliage by up to 24” in late summer and makes a beautiful display (particularly at sunset). It works well in hot and dry conditions but can also tolerate wet periods. As an admirer of nature and native plants in the Southeast, this is one of my favorites. It’s even a little romantic.
  • Acorus gramineus ‘Minimus Aureus’—I have a soft spot for this plant. It’s little, cute, and bright yellow-green. It does not grow fast or provide the grand show that some of the other plants on the list here do, but it could be spectacular in the right place. This is the kind of plant that you don’t get to use often, but you should know about it because it just might be the perfect choice.
  • Sporobolus heterolepis—Prairie Dropseed is a perfect choice for fall color, soft texture, and reliability. It performs magnificently when used in combination with Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, and a few flowering perennials in a meadow or field.

John Hoffman, President of Hoffman Nursery, has been passionate about ornamental and native grasses for over 30 years. We asked John which grasses he’d like to see more people using in the landscape.

  • Andropogon ternarius—Striking fall color and shiny white blooms.
  • Spodiopogon sibiricus—A graceful, bamboo look, and great fall color.
  • Stipa gigantea—Very impressive blooms with intricate, arching seed heads.

Please note we grow most, but not all, of the plants mentioned here. For information about custom growing unlisted selections and other uncommon grasses, contact the Hoffman Nursery Sales Team.

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