Ornamental grasses add attractive movement to any garden. Some, like purple fountain grass, also provide interesting colors. Although some people might regard these grasses as weedy, the right kinds of ornamental grasses do not create weeds. Instead, they give gardeners an easy care plant that does well in hot, dry weather and that can provide food and shelter for local wildlife.
Types of Ornamental Grasses
Cool season and warm season ornamental grasses make this family of plants suitable for many different climate zones, according to the University of Missouri. Cool season ornamental grasses are often evergreen and thrive when the temperature remains below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. These grasses grow rapidly in spring and fall. The warmer season ornamental grasses can tolerate temperatures as high as 95 degrees and grow rapidly when summer brings higher temperatures. Some of the species are blue fescue, feather reed grass, fountain grass, giant Chinese silver grass, Indian grass, pampas grass, Japanese blood grass and maiden grass.
Benefits as Food
The University of Minnesota website reports that its ornamental grass collection garden provides food for birds when snow is on the ground. At this time of year, the grasses retain a certain number of their seeds, which are a rich source of protein for the northern cardinal and other bird species that do not migrate south for the cooler months. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website reports that plant seeds and fruit make up about 90 percent of the fall and winter food supply of the cardinal.
Benefits as Shelter
The larger varieties of ornamental grasses provide thick cover for birds and other wildlife, even when these plants have died back during the winter months. The University of Pennsylvania reports that birds of all types, including hawks, and small mammals such as rabbits, all benefit from the shelter that the warm-season ornamental grasses provide. Birds often use the grasses for nesting sites as well as cover during the winter when the plants are dead and dry. The thick bunches and sturdy upright stems provide good cover for their nests. Deer also use warm season grasses to hide their fawns.
Easy-to-Grow Ornamental Grasses
In addition to being drought tolerant, many ornamental grasses are resistant to insect pests. After you plant an ornamental grass, if it is suited to your climate conditions, it will grow without much assistance. Fertilizer, water, insect sprays and other time-consuming elements of gardening are rarely necessary to keep your ornamental grass hearty and good looking. Often, the only maintenance you need to perform is to cut dead patches from the clumps in spring after new growth appears at the plant's base.
In some areas, ornamental grasses have become dangerous invasive species, despite the food and shelter they provide to wildlife. For example, fountain grass is a serious pest in parts of Hawaii, where it dominates arid regions and poses a significant fire threat. The Hawaii Ecosystems at Risk website classifies fountain grass as a high risk species. Pampas grass is also invasive in Hawaii. The United States Geological Service website reports that reed canary grass is invasive in the northern parts of the Midwest. Be sure to check with your local Extension service to determine if the species of ornamental grass you are considering might be problem in your region.