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Become a Smarter Gardener in 2019: Grasses for the Shade

Astilbe and shade-loving ground covers at the MN Landscape Arboretum:
Carex pensylvanica and lily of the valley.
Photo: Mary Meyer, UMN Extension
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. I am often asked to recommend grasses, especially tall 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).

Carex pensylvanica under a maple tree.
Photo: Mary Meyer, UMN Extension
Below are listed a few lower grasses and sedges that grow well in shade. River oats is native to the Ozark Mountains and southeastern U.S. and is 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 these 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 

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

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

Dry shade  (under maple, box elder or spruce trees)
Carnation sedge (Carex flacca)                                 Height: 10-18 inches; aggressive rhizomes
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)*             Height: 6-18 inches; weak rhizomes
Eastern star sedge (Carex radiata)*                         Height: 6-12 inches
Blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Beyond Blue’, Cool as Ice’, 'Elijah Blue')  Height: 6-12 inches
Blue oatgrass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)           Height: 18-30 inches

* native to shady woods in Minnesota

Author: Mary H. Meyer, Extension Horticulturist and Professor

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