The main attraction in the autumn garden belongs to the magnificent world of ornamental grasses. There is a variety of ornamental grasses that you can find in the nursery center today now that they have grown in popularity. You will quickly see that they come in many different sizes, foliage colors, and bloom times. You should have no problem finding something that will fit into your garden perfectly. Make sure you leave a space in your landscape for these power players of the autumn and winter season.
Low Maintenance Versatile Grasses
You will find there is an ornamental grass for every garden type whether you have moist shade or a dry sunny site. These are low maintenance plants for every level of expertise. The only care they need is to cut back the foliage to the ground each spring when the spring blooming bulbs appear. Taller grasses may need to be staked and tied to prevent them from flopping open in the center.
Something For Your Senses
Many of the grass species have persistent foliage and seed heads that fade to a wheat color in winter. The tall grasses swish and sway in the wind so you can experience them both visually and by their sound. They provide cover and food for birds and small wildlife, too.
Multiple Uses In The Landscape
I like to use the short clump growers in the front of the border and mix them in with my perennial flowers. The taller species are good as a privacy screen and mingle well with evergreen and deciduous shrubs. The tall species will also add height and foliage interest to the perennial flower border. Remember that the size of the grass will increase in height as it takes three years in the garden for the plant to reach it’s mature size. Clump growers will continue to spread in size but at a reasonable pace.
Beware Of Aggressive Spreaders
There are a few aggressive spreaders which should be used in areas where they can naturalize. Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Picta’) is prized for its beautiful green and white variegated foliage but it will quickly take over your garden. It’s great for tough areas such as a sunny hillside if you want something to cover the entire embankment. Be sure to read the plant label on the ornamental grass you choose so you will be informed of its cultural needs and growth habits.
Try Out One Of These Reliable Species
Here is a list of the most popular species that are readily available in the garden center. Take time to visit the garden center in the fall and choose a grass that fits your needs.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora (Feather Reed Grass) adds an upright accent to the garden with its pronounced vertical stems and panicles. I think they look best when in groups of three or more. They are early to bloom, usually in June, but the panicles will persist right into the winter months. The bloom will have a golden brown tint and fades to wheat with the cold temperatures. ‘Overdam’ offers variegated foliage. ‘Karl Foerster’ is very popular and was voted the 2001 Perennial Plant of the Year. It grows 4-5′ tall when mature.
Carex species (Sedge) is a wonderful edging plant due to the short height of the grass blades. With over 2,000 species of sedge, you can find a variety of colors including green, gold, white/green, gold/green, blue, and bronze. Some are clump growers and some spread such as ‘Ice Dance’. Most sedge prefer part shade and moist soil but they are tolerant of sun and drier conditions depending on cultivar. My favorite one is C. dolichostachya ‘Kaga Nishiki’ which means “Gold Fountain”.
Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats) is a native grass that can be naturalized or mixed with perennial flowers. The sturdy 3′ tall stems have bright green foliage similar to bamboo but it is a well-behaved clump grower. The truly outstanding feature is the showy panicles that resemble oats. They dangle in the wind on delicate, drooping stems. The seed heads are popular for dried arrangements and they will persist into the winter months. The foliage changes to a coppery yellow color in fall until it bleaches to a wheat color in winter.
Hakonechloa macra (Hakone Grass or Japanese Forest Grass) is one of the best grasses for shade gardens or moist gardens. It has an attractive thick blade of grass that grows into a graceful, weeping, clump of grass. It is slow to spread but I wish it was quicker because it becomes more beautiful with each passing year. ‘Aureola’ is a favorite cultivar with bright gold and white variegated foliage. It looks elegant when planted near water features. This one reaches 18-24″ tall.
Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass) is my favorite low grower and known for its spiky blue foliage that grows 18″ tall. It performs best in well drained soil and full sun. It’s a natural for rock or alpine gardens but easily fits in with perennial flowers. I like the way it looks with ‘Moonbeam’ Threadleaf Coreopsis. The tall wiry flower stalks grow 3′ tall and have oat-like flowers that dangle from the tips. You can cut off the flowers if you don’t want the added height in your garden but they are wispy so background plants will show through the stems. ‘Sapphire’ is a named cultivar and considered the best blue form.
Miscanthus sinensis (Maiden Grass) has many different cultivars for every size garden! A four season garden would not be complete without one of these amazing ornamental grasses. ‘Gracillimus’ is a tall (5-6′) upright, arching grass with narrow green blades and a small white inner margin. The tassel-like flowers are a beautiful shade of maroon when they first appear. ‘Strictus’ (also known as Porcupine Grass) has stiff, upright green leaves with gold horizontal bands across the leaf blade. ‘Morning Light’ has arching green leaves with a narrow white margin that makes the grass appear silver in the landscape. It fits in nicely with perennial flowers and really brightens up the garden.
‘Yaku Jima’ Miscanthus is one of my favorites and always gets a lot of comments from visitors to my garden. It has a shorter, stocky habit (4-5′ tall) with golden tassels that glow in the late August afternoon sun. ‘Huron Sunrise’ is considered the most profuse blooming Miscanthus with masses of burgundy plumes. It grows 5-6′ tall and is considered a very hardy cultivar. ‘Variegatus’ is one of the oldest Miscanthus cultivars with thick blades of white and green variegated grass. It really is a show stopper in the garden. It has a tendency to open up in the center when the grass plumes emerge so I recommend a corset of stakes and string around the plant before it has a chance to flop.
Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ (Blue Switch Grass) grows 3-4′ tall, has blue upright foliage and wispy panicles that remind me of pearls. The blue foliage will turn red at the tips as the season progresses until it turns a copper color in the fall and eventually bleaching to wheat color in winter. There are many other cultivars to choose from with green foliage but I’m always looking for something with a different color to stand out in the garden. Switch Grass is a bit late to emerge in the spring so be patient with it.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ (Fountain Grass) is a favorite grass of both adults and children because the flower panicles are very soft to the touch and resemble a “fox tail”. The thin green leaves arch over creating a soft fountain about 24″ tall. Fountain grass is early to bloom, usually in late July, but the seed heads will last into the winter months. The seeds are eaten by birds and small wildlife in the winter so they make a nice addition to wildlife certified gardens. If you are looking for something dramatic, try ‘Moudry’ with brownish-black flowers and a later bloom time of September. It looks fantastic with ‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum! Most of the Fountain Grass with burgundy foliage and reddish-pink flowers are annuals for our area but don’t let that stop you from planting them in your garden. They look nice in planters and create an upright center piece for your annual pots and urns.
Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment With Something New
Let this article be your starting point for experimenting with ornamental grasses in your garden. The above mentioned species are all easy to grow and maintain so you should have excellent results. When researching other grasses to add to your landscape, be aware of their hardiness zones. Not all grasses will survive our harsh winters but you can still enjoy them as an annual plant to beautify your garden. When spring arrives, you can replace them with something new. Happy Gardening!