8 Ornamental Grasses that Will Grow in Shade

Use these ornamental grasses to add texture, movement, and color to shaded landscape nooks.

Japanese hakone forestgrass along fence near path

Peter Krumhardt

Most ornamental grasses grow best in full sun (at least 8 hours of bright sunlight per day), but there a few that thrive in low-light spots. The following 8 easy-to-grow ornamental grasses for shade can be planted on the north side of your home, under the canopy of a large tree, and anywhere that is in shadow most of the day. These grasses almost effortlessly brighten up shaded areas of your landscape, where they'll add instant texture and movement year-round.

1. Northern Sea Oats

Prized for its shimmery oat-like seed heads, northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) are at their prime in fall. The wide, slightly weeping leaf blades turn bronze with the first frost and the seed heads take on a copper-tinged maroon hue. The dry seed heads add music to the garden when the wind moves through them. After it's established, northern sea oats tolerates both drought and wet conditions. It will self-seed freely; remove the seed heads in late fall if you don’t want it to seed into other areas of the landscape. It has good deer resistance.

Size: 36 inches tall by 18 inches wide

Hardiness Zones: 3–8

2. Japanese Forest Grass

Arching stems and foliage give Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) the appearance of a flowing stream. Group 5 to 7 plants together to create cascading texture through a planting bed. Japanese forest grass grows in a lush, many layered clump and spreads slowly. Its medium green leaves turn vivid orange in autumn. The cultivar ‘Aureola’ has eye-catching chartreuse foliage in spring and summer. 

Size: 18 inches tall by 18 inches wide

Hardiness Zones: 5–9

3. Feather Reed Grass

Both boggy soil and shade won't deter feather reed grass (Calamagrostis arundinacea). It has a vase-like shape and airy pinkish flower plumes in late summer and early fall. A clump-forming grass, it will spread slowly in average soils and more quickly in wet sites. Watch it closely to ensure it doesn’t spread too aggressively. Feather reed grass has a strong upright growth habit that makes it a good choice for creating a living screen for privacy

Size: 3–4 feet tall by 2–3 feet wide

Hardiness Zones: 5–9

4. Golden Wood Millet

A beacon of light in the shade garden, golden wood millet (Milium effusum 'Aureum') has vibrant chartreuse foliage. Its ribbon-like leaves give the clump-forming plant a casual appearance. Expect it to spread slowly over time when growing in rich, well-drained soil. Shade is a must for this ornamental grass; its foliage will wither and turn brown in harsh afternoon sunlight. 

Size: 2 feet tall and wide

Hardiness Zones: 5–9

5. Tufted Hairgrass

Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) is aptly named. Its thin leaf blades grow in loose tufts. Clumps of blades bend every-which-way to lend the plant a whimsical, casual appearance. Silky flower spikes rise like a soft cloud over the plant in summer and last through fall when the flower spikes shift from light green to light yellow. Tufted hairgrass grows best in humus-rich, moist to soggy soil. 

Size: 2–3 feet tall and wide

Hardiness Zones: 4–9

6. Bottlebrush Grass

Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) is one of a few native grasses that is at home in a woodland setting. Bottlebrush grass is named for its tiny green flowers. The flowers emerge in summer and resemble tiny bottle brushes. The flower spikes rise above the foliage and stand through mid-fall. Bottlebrush grass grows best in nutrient-rich, moist soil. It will self-seed but seldom becomes weedy.

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and wide

Hardiness Zones: 4–9

7. Blue Fescue

This short, mounded grass makes a tough edging plant, or plant a group of them in geometric shapes for a striking display. Blue fescue (Festuca glauca) has a porcupine-like appearance with upright leaves forming a tight clump. This ornamental grass takes on a blue-green color in part shade; plants growing in full sun have a more pronounced blue hue. Blue fescue does best in well-drained to dry soil; it languishes in moist soil. Considered a short-lived perennial, it usually lives 2 to 3 years. 

Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and wide

Hardiness Zones: 4–8

8. Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)

Blue oat grass resembles blue fescue but is significantly larger. Its spiky, mounded shape is a striking presence in the garden. Use blue oat grass as a focal point or plant several together to visually divide a space. More green than blue when planted in shade, this ornamental grass maintains its foliage until late fall in most areas. Blue oat grass grows best in well-drained or dry soils; it doesn’t grow well in wet planting sites. 

Size: 2–3 feet tall and wide

Hardiness Zones: 4–8

variegata carex morrowii sedge

Doug Hetherington

Grass Lookalikes for Shade

Stretch the definition of grasses to grasslike plants and many more species make the cut for shade. At the top of the list: sedges (Carex spp.). Native to woodlands and thickets in North America, sedges are generally low-growing plants with soft, arching, evergreen leaf blades. The clump-forming plants thrive in part shade or full shade and a variety of soils. There are many sedge varieties available for the garden, and most are hardy in Zones 3–9.

Another grass lookalike is mondo grass (Ophiopogon spp.). This member of the lily family has wide deep green or blackish-purple blades that arch toward the ground. It forms 1 foot tall and wide clumps and is hardy in Zones 6–9.

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