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How to Grow Zebra Grass, an Ornamental Grass

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Zebra grass growing in my friend's yard.

Zebra grass growing in my friend's yard.

I’m not usually a fan of ornamental grasses. They look great in the fall with their spectacular seed heads, but the rest of the year they just look like . . . grass. I saw zebra grass growing in a friend’s yard and was immediately smitten with its horizontally striped leaves.

What is Zebra Grass?

Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') is a perennial grass that is native to Japan. It is also known as Japanese silver grass. The plant is hardy in zones 5 – 9. It has become invasive in parts of North America, so be careful to control this one if you add it to your garden.

Zebra grass grows from an underground rhizome. The foliage grows to 5 feet tall and 3 – 5 feet wide. When it blooms, its plumes add another possible 2 feet to its height. The bright green leaves have horizontal stripes of cream or gold, giving it interest during the spring and summer before it blooms. The foliage grows in an arching form.

The flowers are tiny and white, appearing in late summer. They are followed by silvery seed heads in the fall.

The plumes of seed heads are light and airy.

The plumes of seed heads are light and airy.

How to Grow Zebra Grass

Most gardeners purchase their zebra grass as plants from their local nursery. Plant them 3 – 4 feet apart. The plants may seem to be too far apart at first but once the plants are fully grown, it won’t look so sparse. The rhizome grows and spreads every year, increasing the size of the clump. Keep your plants well watered for the first year as they settle into their new home.

Zebra grass grows best in full sun (6 – 8 hours of sunlight daily). If it doesn’t get enough sun, its graceful arching leaves will start to get floppy and unable to stand up on their own. If this happens and you don’t have a sunnier spot in your yard to move your grass to, you can try staking the plant. For a clumping plant like this, I drive stakes around the perimeter of the plant, then wrap string around the stakes forming something that looks a lot like a tomato cage.

Zebra grass will grow in almost any kind of soil as long as it has a neutral pH and is moist. The plant is drought tolerant, but grows best if the soil is consistently moist.

You can fertilize your plants in the spring using a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10. Do not use fertilizer intended for your lawn. Those fertilizers have high concentrations of nitrogen to encourage your lawn to produce foliage only. If you want the lovely seed heads on your zebra grass in the fall, you have to feed it a balanced fertilizer that will encourage flowering.

The plumes add up to 2 feet of height to the plants.

The plumes add up to 2 feet of height to the plants.

When to Cut Down Your Zebra Grass

When should you cut down your zebra grass, in the fall or the spring? There are two schools of thought about this.

Most gardeners prefer to cut down their ornamental grasses in the spring, having left the dead foliage to provide interest in their gardens during the winter. The foliage also serves to protect the crown of the plant from the harsh winter weather. Once spring arrives and new growth starts, the previous year’s dead foliage can be sheared right down to the ground.

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Other gardeners prefer their gardens to be tidy and cut down their ornamental grasses in the fall. If you choose to cut your zebra grass down in the fall after a hard frost kills the foliage, leave 5 – 6 inches of the stalks rather than cutting them down to soil level. Those stalks protect the crown of the plant from the harsh winter weather. You can cut them down completely in the spring when your grass starts growing new shoots.

How to Divide Zebra Grass

You may want to divide your zebra grass every 3 or 4 years to keep it from taking over your garden. Use a garden spade to dig up the clump. Then take a garden hose and wash the roots so that you can see what you are doing. Use a sharp knife or pruners to separate the rhizomes into new clumps. Discard any dead or diseased pieces. Replant your divisions, making sure that each one has both roots and leaves, 3 – 4 feet apart.

© 2020 Caren White


Caren White (author) on December 09, 2020:

You're selcome! I hope that you give this grass a try in your garden.

Caren White (author) on December 09, 2020:

Happy Holidays to you too!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on December 08, 2020:

The zebra grass looks great with the bright green leaves with stripes of cream or gold. It is a great choice as an ornamental grass, thank you for sharing.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on December 08, 2020:

Though I don't have this in my yard, I love the look of zebra grass. When I did have ornamental grasses, I left them uncut through the winter, too, and they did very well. Thanks for always sharing your lovely garden tips. Happy Holidays!

Caren White (author) on December 08, 2020:

Peggy, I'm happy that you agree. This is such a striking grass.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 08, 2020:

I agree with you that the colors of this zebra grass make it a pretty addition to plantings in a garden.

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