Plant Profile: Ornamental Grasses

The great garden cut-back has started, with the first real frost/freeze that came earlier this week. Hosta turned yellow and melted into the ground, daylily blossoms turned to mush; there will not be any more blossoms this year. One group of plants that are just starting to come in to their season of beauty, though, is the ornamental grasses. There are dozens of species and varieties, but there are a few that really shine in autumn; plume-like flower heads gently waving in the cool breezes, their blades changing to brilliant shades of yellow, red, and orange. After the colors fade, don’t cut these beauties back till spring. The flowers will dry and stay upright through several snows, and add a beautiful texture to the winter landscape. Ice-covered grass plumes are one of the more stunning spectacles after a storm. There are several different species of ornamental grass that are hardy in this area, but always check to make sure the particular variety you are purchasing is winter hardy.

Pennisetum, or Fountain Grass, is a large collection of grasses, ranging in height from tall to short, some of which are hardy, some are not. They are typically clump-forming grasses, not prone to spreading or being invasive. The flower of this species is typically a fuzzy tuft on stiff stems, lending a unique look to the clumps in the winter. One of the best hardy varieties is ‘Hameln’, a dwarf fountain grass that forms clumps approximately 3 feet tall and wide. ‘Karley Rose’, and ‘Rubrum’ are beautiful varieties with pink flowers and red foliage and flowers, respectively, but are unfortunately only annuals.

Maiden Grass, or Miscanthus, is another species of grass with dozens of different varieties and heights available, from 3 to 8 feet tall. It is typically a spreading species, colonizing whatever area it is planted in. Use deep-set edging or plant inside sunken buckets (be sure to drill drainage holes!) to keep it more under control. Maiden Grass has looser, more open flowerheads that turn white and fluffy once they go to seed. M. sinensis ‘Rubrum’ is a beautiful specimen, green through the summer, turning red, orange, and gold when the weather cools. Zebra Grass and Porcupine Grass are two varieties of Miscanthus that have horizontal gold striping on wider leaf blades, creating an interesting bi-color effect in the landscape. There are other varieties that have vertical (lengthwise) variegation, such as ‘Morning Light’ and ‘Gracillimus’.

Calamagrostis species, or Feather Reed Grass, are some of the nicest, straightest, tallest grasses out there. Clump forming, they again come in a variety of heights and colors. The grass stays in a nice, polite clump, never spreading where you don’t want it or getting out of hand. ‘Karl Foerster’ is one of the best solid green varieties, its flowers reaching between 4 and 6 feet tall. ‘Overdam’ is a white-variegated form, and ‘El Dorado’ is gold-variegated. Flowers are tan, slender, and drift and move in the slightest breezes.

Making more plants to share with friends and relatives is an incredibly simple process with grasses, especially if you have one of the spreading varieties. Any time of the growing season, clumps can be dug and transplanted without affecting growth or flowering much at all (just make sure they’re well hydrated before digging, as always!). Grasses are quite forgiving and a perfect choice for the beginning gardener, or someone who just wants a little something different in their garden.