Ornamental Grasses

by | Sep 13, 2023

The appreciation of ornamental grasses has ebbed and flowed a bit over the years, but as a low-maintenance, multi-season interest plant, they are hard to beat! It takes a while to understand the nature of each variety of grass and to see what it looks like during every season of the year.  Yes, they have their down times, but this little hiccup is easily overshadowed by their many fine qualities.

Most grasses, once established in a site they enjoy, are virtually carefree: a little watering in summer, a little protection in winter and an annual pruning. They all have fresh new growth in late spring, attractive flowers in autumn and an interesting look even in winter. Late summer breezes cause their leaves and stems to sway, adding not only life and movement to your garden but also the sound of rustling foliage – it’s like listening to nature’s music! Many grasses, such as miscanthus, which really plumes up in late summer, literally shine when backlit by the warm golden sunlight so unique to fall. During winter, evergreen grasses, such as carex, gently caress the edges of hanging baskets and containers.

Grasses have so much to offer – we just have to learn how to use them to their greatest potential. Three of the most popular grass families are the miscanthus, pennisetums, and carex.

Miscanthus are medium-to-tall showpieces that make great focal points in mid-sized or large gardens, and can be blended to create a lovely en masse display. They prefer full to part sun and average to moist, well-drained soil. Their fall flowers not only add a spark to autumn gardens, but they also continue through the winter until heavy snows or winds take their toll. Tall varieties, like Miscanthus ‘Giganteus’ (zone 5), grow eight to ten feet tall with long green leaves touched with a bit of silver. ‘Cosmopolitan’ is another taller growing variety (6′ or more) with a lovely wide-margined leaf and coppery-pink plumes.

A much sought after miscanthus, however, is ‘Porcupine Grass’ (M. strictus – zone 5). This six to seven foot tall grass has gold bands along its leaves and a tall upright habit, making it especially elegant. Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’ has a similar look and habit. Another good, taller, option for fantastic fall colour is M. sinensis ‘Fire Dragon’, which has green foliage during the growing season, maturing to fiery bright red in autumn.

For smaller gardens, fear not, there are many compact forms of miscanthus, like M. ‘Yaku Jima’, making them far more adaptable to containers and small spaces.  

Pennisetums, or Fountain Grasses, have a lovely open form and bear a plethora of bottle-brush-like flower spikes later in summer. ‘Burgundy Bunny’ pennisetum (zone 5) has some of the darkest foliage of the hardy pennisetums, and ‘Hameln’ (zone 5) has a very tidy, compact form growing to about 36”.  ‘Red Head’ is larger growing (up to 5′) and offers long, smoky-purple bottlebrush plumes over mounding green foliage, and the foliage takes on golden tones in teh fall. Surround these plants with pink flowering ‘Autumn Joy’ sedums, and you’ll have quite a display! Pennisetums tolerate a range of soil conditions, but try to ensure they are in well-drained soil. Please note, the popular ‘Purple Fountain Grass’ (p. setaceum rubrum) is not hardy for our area, so it will finish when the cold weather comes.

Each fall and winter, we’ve been using more and more carex (sedge) along with evergreen perennials to create some pretty amazing effects. The old stand-by workhorse is Carex morrowii ‘Evergold’. There are so many new varieties of carex coming out the past few years, it’s really hard to keep up. C. ‘Everest’ has brilliant white and green foliage and C. ‘Everillo’ is quite striking with hot lime foliage. They will tolerate most winters in a container. In the ground, they are like beacons of light all winter-long, especially on those really dark, dreary days. 

Before signing off we should give a nod to calamagrostis (reed grass) too.  ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Overdam’ are two popular types, and they too are tough, easy to grow, offer interesting flower heads, and do relatively well in heavier soils (well-drained soil is still preferred). They do need consistent moisture though, so try to place in a spot where you can keep them hydrated.

Folks, if you’re new to grasses, proceed slowly. Try a few this fall and see how they can heighten the effect of your late summer, fall, and winter garden. Plant them fairly close together for an instant effect and to choke out weeds. The basic rule, however, is to plant them as far apart as their height. The grasses mentioned are not invasive, and they will all add a whole new dimension to your late summer and fall garden.

Ready to transform your garden into a year-round masterpiece with the captivating allure of ornamental grasses? Look no further than Minter Country Garden, your go-to destination for a wide selection of these landscape wonders.