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Ornamental grasses for shady sites

A patch of Pennsylvania sedge growing next to lily-of-the-valley and astilbe in a border garden.
Astilbe and shade-loving ground covers Carex pensylvanica and lily of the valley.

As our gardens age, trees grow and produce welcome shade, but shade means a change for what grows under these beautiful trees. A sunny garden and landscape ages into a shade garden.

Here are some recommendations for grasses for shady sites.

Shady favorites: Landscape and ornamental grasses

I know of no tall grasses (4 feet or more) that grow in shade. (Aruncus, goat’s beard, and Thalictrum meadow rue, however, are tall shade-loving perennials).

River oats are native to the Ozark Mountains and the southeastern U.S. and are marginally hardy in Minnesota, but it usually self-seeds to live in shady gardens as a perennial.

Hakone grass is native to the forests of Japan, especially in moist sites.

How to use in the landscape

In establishing these plants, water well in the first year or two, as many shady locations are dry sites with other established plants competing for moisture.

Combine grasses with bold textured hosta, perennial geraniums, lily of the valley, ferns and spring-flowering bulbs (spring bulbs do not like wet feet in the summer) and you can create an interesting garden in the shade.

Ornamental grasses for shade

Below are listed a few lower grasses and sedges that grow well in shade.

Light shade

Common name Scientific name Height
Porcupine sedge Carex hystericina* 2-3½ feet; self- seeds
Pennsylvania sedge Carex pensylvanica* 6-18 inches; weak rhizomes
Bowles golden sedge Carex elata 'Aurea' 1-3 feet; prefers wet sites
River oats Chasmanthium latifolium 2-3½ feet
Tufted hairgrass Deschampsia caespitosa* 2-4 feet
Eastern bottlebrush Elymus hystrix var. hystrix* 2-3 feet
Hakone grass Hakonechloa macra 2-3 feet
Hakone grass cultivars Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola', 'All Gold' 6-12 inches
Woodrush Luzula sylvatica flowers 2 feet; basal foliage
Golden wood millet Milium effusum 'Aureum' 1-2 feet

Heavy shade

Common name Scientific name Height
Carnation sedge Carex flacca 10-18 inches; aggressive rhizomes
Palm sedge Carex muskingumensis* 2-3½ feet
Long-stalked sedge Carex pedunculata* 6-8 inches
Pennsylvania sedge Carex pensylvanica* 6-18 inches; weak rhizomes
River oats Chasmanthium latifolium 2-3 ½ feet
Tufted hairgrass Deschampsia caespitosa* 2-4 feet
Woodrush Luzula sylvatica flowers 2 feet; basal foliage

Dry shade - under maple, box elder or spruce trees

Common name Scientific name Height
Carnation sedge Carex flacca 10-18 inches; aggressive rhizomes
Pennsylvania sedge Carex pensylvanica* 6-18 inches; weak rhizomes
Eastern star sedge Carex radiata* 6-12 inches
Blue fescue Festuca glauca 'Beyond Blue', 'Cool as Ice', 'Elijah Blue' 6-12 inches
Blue oatgrass Helictotrichon sempervirens 18-30 inches

* Native to shady woods in Minnesota.

Author: Mary H. Meyer

Reviewed in 2021

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