You May Want To Think Twice Before Planting Fountain Grass

Pennisetum, or fountain ornamental grass, seems almost too good to pass up when you first get acquainted. Tough, vigorous, and with an endearing way of painting landscapes with its ethereal seed heads gracefully swaying in the spring and summer breeze. And much like an undeterred hero in a Hollywood blockbuster, it's amazingly resistant to drought, pests, and diseases. Pop this superstar into a sunny spot with well-draining loam soil and it'll give you an Oscar-worthy performance, not to mention versatility that could rival that of a Swiss Army knife. 

But hold onto your gardening tools — it's not all sprigs and petals here. So, what are the cons of fountain grass? Pennisetum can be incredibly difficult to control once unleashed. This photogenic plant readily out-competes its meek neighbors, spreading around like that juicy gossip at the annual neighborhood BBQ. We're talking about an invasiveness that extends out of your garden's borders, threatens your vegetables, and makes a nuisance of itself at your flower beds and concrete gaps. Plus, it can turn your beautiful garden into a bonfire, considering that fueling wildfires is one of its unexpected hobbies — one that Mother Nature and fire marshals aren't fans of. But while fountain grass may come with a caution label larger than its hefty botanical description, at your disposal is an array of alternatives that can give your garden the greenery it craves without the drama.

More on what makes fountain grass a problem

To the naive observer, fountain grass appears to be an innocent bystander in the world of lawn adornments, its seedheads reaching skyward and exhibiting a pleasing swishing noise in the breeze, adding dramatic flair to your garden. But beneath this serene exterior lurks a less pleasant reality. Fountain grass is a tenacious invader, its prolific seeding transforming it from a charming guest to an unwelcome force primed to overrun your yard. The grass seeds are zealous explorers, often setting off on adventures aided by wind, rain, and critters. 

Pennisetum might also creep into your neighbor's yard, squeeze into the gaps between paths or terraces, and oust helpful flora. And unlike other ornamental stars, this variety refuses to bow out — there's no herbicide stellar enough to stand up to this green conqueror. And the roots? They lack robustness, offering your slipping yard little support. 

Further, in a plotline Quentin Tarantino could cherish, fountain grass flips from ornamental beauty to pyromaniac terror in the sizzling summer heat. The previously adored seedhead morph into kindling for wildfires, more passionate and ardently ablaze than the native vegetation's feeble attempts at combustion. If that's not alarming enough, fountain grass deploys its final defense: sharp blades. Indeed, their razor-like edges can inflict pesky injuries, a painful souvenir of nature's barbed wire.

Alternatives for your yard

While entangled in the invasive allure of fountain grass, other non-invasive species have been waiting patiently for their standing ovation. These gems add charm to your garden while respecting its boundaries. Let's begin with pink muhly grass. A bearer of pink feathery blooms, this tall, whimsical, and hardy plant can survive harsh conditions like drought, flooding, and nutrient-deficient areas. Plus, its soft blades offer a delightful contrast to fountain grass' viciousness.

Moving on, we meet deergrass. Drought- and deer-resistant, this perennial game-changer sports a dense foliage of vibrant green and seemingly adapts to various soil conditions. Now, onto Leafy Reedgrass. Capping at a height and width of 2 feet each, this rockstar of the grass family has blue-green leaves strikingly painted with purple streaks and typically blooms from May to November. But it dislikes trims, so keep the mower away.

Next up is California fescue, an ornamental gem preferred for landscape restoration. Not just a pretty face, this variety takes mowing like a sport and favors semi-shaded areas with good draining soil. Lastly, we spotlight mat rush. Picture a grass-like plant with long, narrow, mint-green and cream-striped leaves. While ideal for mass planting, its versatility sees it used as a border plant or nestled in a decorative pot to grace your covered patio.