Ornamental Grass: Low-Maintenance Alternatives to Traditional Lawn

Tawny sedge grass.

Easy to grow and easy to maintain, ornamental grasses are becoming a popular alternative to traditional lawns. Ornamental grasses and grass-like plants may be used for difficult spots like slopes, for special areas where they might fill a needed niche or simply for ground cover. The best part about ornamental grasses is the sheer variety to choose from and the beauty and originality they bring to your landscape.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Kathy Bosin adds, "Since ornamental grasses are at peak performance in early autumn, it is a great time to visit your local botanical garden or arboretum to see what the grasses look like when mature, and select the perfect ones for your landscape."


Don't toss out all your lawn care tools just yet. Many ornamental grasses do require some maintenance. There are, however, many varieties that greatly diminish the time you spend maintaining your landscape. Many require no mowing.

Depending on your climate and the conditions of your yard, you will more than likely have many grass plants to choose from. Naturally, you'll want to select those plants that appeal to you and compliment your landscape but also check into the maintenance level needed so that you can choose a ground cover that suits your gardening lifestyle.

Whether you have a water garden, rustic garden, rock, or Oriental garden, ornamental grasses can replace the traditional lawns that are so typical in suburbs and along city blocks.

Growth Patterns

When choosing ornamental grasses to replace your lawn, growth patterns are a major consideration. Another element to keep in mind is that you need not choose only one type to replace your lawn. Many ornamental grasses grow well together or you may simply want to section areas for particular plants for aesthetic reasons.

Still, growth patterns will typically influence where you plant certain ornamental grasses. Running grasses are usually quite invasive and might cover an area in no time; these may also require more maintenance though.

Clumping grasses grow in clumps or bunches of grass. Certain species actually resemble sod when grown close together.


Ornamental grasses appear in six general categories that denote size and shape.

  • Tufted grasses often sport spiky foliage, as with blue fescue.
  • Mounded grasses typically appear to be weeping as they spill out from their central mound.
  • Upright grasses grow vertically upwards, as with cattail.
  • Upright divergent grasses grow upward but fan out a bit, as with blue oat grass.
  • Upright arching grasses sprout up and then out in a fountain-like manner.
  • Arching grass, like palm grass, sports foliage that arches up and outward.

Keep in mind that there are grasses that will grow shoulder high and some that will never make it past your ankle. Assess your landscape to better help you decide what size and shape will compliment the surroundings best. Depending on your specific setting—be it boggy, hilly, or dry—there is an ideal match out there. More than likely, you may find several types that will work for your area. Pairing different types of grasses together can add visual interest and make for a pleasing landscape.


The grasses listed are ideal as ground covers. There are many more lovely plants that may be employed for dramatic effect, like purple pampas grass or Egyptian papyrus. These too may work as ground cover, but may not be ideal for suburban and city lot spaces.

Japanese sweet flag makes for a lush green ground cover that thrives in a moist, even boggy soil. This evergreen, grass-like plant emits a sweet odor and will even tolerate considerable foot traffic, making it ideal for a child-friendly yard.

Sheep's fescue is often chosen for ground cover, especially for hilly and sloped terrain. Its soft foliage is an attractive green. This ornamental grass requires a moist, well-drained soil with access to full sun. Because it rots easily, it is not an appropriate choice for boggy conditions.

Catlin sedge, a low-to-the-ground evergreen, generally grows no taller than 3 to 4 inches. It can be left unmowed and still prove a most attractive lawn. It boasts a lovely shade of green and is also a hardy plant that can endure plenty of foot traffic.

Velvet grass is noted for its soft velvety foliage and wispy white flowers. This cool-season grass is fast spreading and works very well as a lawn substitute. Its meadow-like appearance will complement any cottage-style home, and its flowers may even be dried and placed in dry flower arrangements.

Purple three awn is drought-tolerant and good for very dry conditions. This short prairie grass prefers plenty of sunlight, and its hardy nature makes it the ideal choice for southwestern style gardens. Its foliage is a sage green but its blooms emerge a greenish-purple. It is a stunning selection.


When choosing an ornamental grass for your location, be sure to find out all about its care requirements and potential weaknesses. For instance, Japanese sweet flag is sometimes prone to spider mites. This can easily be controlled with proper care.

If your lot allows, check into some of the taller varieties of ornamental grasses for added beauty in landscapes that could use a little more height. Variegated species provide interesting textures and colors for added appeal. And don’t forget their appeal for hard-to-garden areas such as slopes.