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Ornamental Grasses and Ground Cover

By Alan Ray
Published: March 15, 2022
Key Takeaways

There are thousands of varieties of grass you can use on your property, so why have just one? As Alan Ray points out, ornamental grasses and ground cover look attractive, require no maintenance, provide shade, and prevent erosion.

Although this article is about ornamental grasses and ground cover, I wanted to begin by listing the various types of grasses there are to show the seeming ubiquity of this plant. That was before I learned grasses belong to a family of flowering plants known as Poaceae (po-A-see-ay), an extended family with some 12,000 species categorized as grasses. So that mowed that idea.

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Important family members include the cereal grasses like oat grass, corn, barley, and wheat grass along with rice grass. Essentially, all the kinds you find in your favorite box of cereal. Then there are some surprise members that include bamboo, thatch, hay, and straw. Grass is so widespread and varied in its scope and usage, it’s hard to grasp how omnipresent it truly is. But it didn’t get there overnight.

Grasses have had plenty of time to put down roots and become so widespread. Grass types are known as tribes. A 2005 study reported one grass sample to be 66 million years old. In 2011, however, another tribe of rice grass trumped those numbers when it was determined to be 127 million years old. Scientists were able to date the grasses by analyzing tribe samples found within some ancient coprolite.

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What’s in a Name?

Coprolite is calcified fecal matter. Petrified poop, if you will. More often that of a dinosaur, which were the samples referenced. By examining the dinosaur defecation, scientists were able to identify what type grasses the ill-fated foragers consumed along with the age of the tribe. And while generally found outdoors, coprolite has been discovered behind a couch or house plant if you happen to own a sneaky little pet.

Versatile and Transforming

You don’t need an agricultural degree to realize the importance of grass to our world. Grasses give protection against erosion, provide shade and windbreaks, and prevent fields and pastures from being a wash of mud. Grasses not only feed us, but all the wild herbivores across the world’s plains including our domestic animals. Remarkably, we are able to harness this irrepressible force of nature to work its wizardry on a much smaller scale: our yards at home.

For the homeowner, landscaping with a mixture of attractive grasses and colorful ground covers allows them to titivate that everyday yard and transform it into an eye-catching work of nature. Through the natural beauty and limitless versatility of grasses, you can improve the look and up the value of your place at the same time. Think of it as outdoor remodeling.

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Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grass isn’t the type you walk on or mow over. These tall grasses make quite attractive accents while also providing effective ground cover. They also perform a little magic trick. Some ornamentals (like pampas) are able to extend the beauty of autumn by keeping their fullness and structure long after the kaleidoscopic leaves of fall have all fallen. Ornamentals retain their optical dynamics with soft colors and large blooms where other plants have already surrendered to the coming winter.

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With their impressive stature, visually arresting flowers and buffed colors, ornamental grasses are an invaluable addition to any property. So, let’s take a look at some nice options.

Here are a few established ornamentals.

pampas grass
Pampas Grass — Native to South America, this ornamental grows in clumps of dense and upright, sharp-edged leaves. It produces showy, plumed panicles that bloom in late summer and fall. Flower stalks can reach eight to 12 feet in height. Use as a year-round accent or windbreak.
fountain grass

Fountain Grass — Is an excellent ornamental grass. Often used as a border or mixed in perennial beds. The nodding, bottlebrush seed heads are somewhat spiked and plumed and take on a pinkish tint later in the season.
feather reed grass

Feather Reed Grass — Grows into a strong, upright clump, some five feet tall. Often used as a screen or vertical accent. The 12-inch flower heads cast a purple hue in spring. As a type of reed, this grass is suitable for wet soils like around pools, ponds, and water gardens.
ribbon grass

Ribbon Grass — This fast-spreading perennial grows to about three feet tall and makes an excellent semi-evergreen ground cover. Like bamboo and mint, Ribbon grass is seriously prolific and should be controlled. Partial shade is needed to retain its full color.
zebra grass

Zebra Grass — Growing six to eight feet tall, Zebra grass does best in full sun. In fact, shade weakens the flower stalks. Some plants may have gracefully arching foliage with feathery flowers. Often utilized as accents, this grass also works well in mixed borders or as a screen.

Ground Covers

Ground covers are nice complement to any lawn. And for good reason. Ground-covering plants cover the ground like a living mat and look good doing it. Most covering-type grasses are comparatively short in stature and fast growing. Many flower and provide contrast, color, and definition to a yard. Planting ground cover allows you to transform a rough-looking area into one of beauty while protecting the soil and reducing maintenance.

Ground cover can also be a nice option for spots that may be challenging to mow like a steep slope or an area with low hanging branches. Shallow tree roots due to rocky ground are a pain to mow around as well. These are ideal places to plant some pretty ground cover. The benefits are self-evident.

Here are some types of ground cover. Naturally, there are many more but these are five popular ones.

The Fab 5

As you can tell, ground cover and ornamentals aren’t lawn grass but do have their place in the yard.

Bugleweed

Bugleweed — Is a colorful, perennial herb and member of the mint family. As a mint, it likes to grow and spread. This ground cover produces a green carpet with small, pretty flowers that reduce erosion. The name is derived from its bugle-shaped leaves.
Dichondra

Dichondra — Forms a dense mat that covers well. Best for low-trafficked areas. Is a warm-season lawn substitute. Green and well covering but not good below 25°F.
English Ivy

English Ivy — Long used to cover castle walls, climb tree trunks, and blanket embankments, English Ivy can be trained to grow upright or spread out as horizontal ground cover.
Variegated Goutweed

Variegated Goutweed — Also known as Bishop’s-weed. This popular ground cover is a good choice for shady, dry areas. Its ease of care is a plus. Considered fast growing.
Japanese Spurge

Japanese Spurge — Originating in Japan, this celebrated grass prefers partial and full shade. Best planted under trees and in the shade of buildings. Whorls of evergreen foliage with small clusters of white flowers form a dense, green mat.

A Jump Start

So, there you have it. If you were thinking of doing a bit of landscaping around your house, maybe this piece will help you to get some ideas rolling. Realize that when it comes to your yard, you don’t have to do a full makeover all at once. A facelift will do. Fix that troublesome bare spot or cover those tree roots by simply planting some attractive ground cover. Pop in a few flowing ornamentals for effect and Voila!, you’re landscaping. You’ll feel good and the yard will look great.

And who knows, a million years from now a piece of coprolite from your own backyard may end up under the microscope of some inquisitive scientist working to determine the age of whatever it was your dog ate all those millennia ago.

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Written by Alan Ray

Profile Picture of Alan Ray

Alan Ray has written five books and is a New York Times best-selling author. Additionally, he is an award-winning songwriter with awards from BMI and ASCAP respectively. He lives in rural Tennessee with his wife, teenage son, and two dogs: a South African Boerboel (Bore-Bull) and a Pomeranian/Frankenstein mix.

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