As summer begins to wind down I find myself thinking of plants for fall and winter. Ornamental grasses appeal to me for their texture, form and long lasting beauty. They add motion to the garden and are effective as accents, groundcovers, specimens or in masses. And, once established many are drought tolerant and carefree.
A few years ago in September I had the pleasure of visiting Chanticleer, a public garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. This rich and diverse garden offers visitors a chance to see amazing combinations of plants displayed in both formal and more natural settings. One of the plantings I particulary enjoyed was a mass of the feather reed grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ paired with asters and yuccas. Large clumps provided strong vertical accents in this informal planting. A perennial, feather reed has rich green foliage and airy inflorescenses up to 6′ tall that start out purplish. By late summer they turn a buff color that persists well into winter. Undemanding yet graceful, this ornamental grass adds movement to the landscape when it sways in the breeze.
Another clumper, the native pink muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaries, is both tough and beautiful with fine textured dark green foliage and delicate blooms that start out pink or pink-red, and turn a tan color as they dry. Growing to about 3′ tall, this “see-through” plant makes a good companion for perennials like asters, chrysanthemums and sedums.
Panicum virgatum, switch grass is a sturdy native that, depending on the cultivar, grows 4 to 8′ tall. The selection ‘Shenandoah,’ red switch grass, grows to 4′ tall and takes on red tones in summer before turning dark burgundy in fall. I have grown this grass in combination with the native Virginia sweetspire, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ which is noted for its red fall foliage. There are also forms of switch grass with blue foliage. Once established it tolerates a range of soil types including drought or periods of wet and dry. This grass is also valued for its erect habit and texture in the winter garden.
If you want to make a bold statement and have plenty of space there are numerous cultivars of Japanese silver grass, Miscanthus sinensis, to consider. The cultivar Gracillimus reaches 7′ tall in bloom. Growing to 6′ tall, Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ has a rounded habit with narrow fine-textured foliage, with white-variegated leaf margins. This beauty glows in the garden, especially when sited near water.
Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, (formerly known as Stipa, a name I prefer) grows happily in my garden both in the ground and in containers. The overall effect reminds me of fine green and straw colored hair. Its size, to about 2′ tall in bloom, makes this clumper easy to use in small gardens.
Two ornamental grasses that I have not grown but hear glowing reports about are Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues,’ a selection of the native little bluestem and Sporobolus heterolepis, prairie dropseed, a native to North American prairies that forms a 15″ tall mound. Tiffany Jones of McMahan’s considers Schizachyrium “the best grass they sell” for its blue foliage, purple tones in the fall and its upright habit with no flopping.
Prairie dropseed starts out glossy green in the summer but come fall it turns a deep orange before fading to light copper in winter. The delicate flowers are held high on stalk to about 30″‘s. A clumper, this low maintenance grass tolerates a range of soil types and is known to be long-lived and low maintenance.
No matter what the season, ornamental grasses add their own special beauty to the garden, whether you grow them on their own, or in combination with other grasses, perennials, conifers, trees and shrubs.
Tips for Growing Ornamental Grasses
* the best time to divide your grasses is in the early spring just before new growth begins
* cut back grasses in late winter to early spring