How can you extend the drama and romance of the late-season garden? Look to ornamental grasses. Here’s a quick guide to help you get to know them.
What value do grasses bring to the garden?
- Can be used for drama and romance in the late season
- You can find a wide selection of shapes, sizes, and colors
- Can be used as hedges, screens, accents, in masses, and in containers
- Bring movement and airiness to a garden, plus a relaxing rustling noise
- Pair beautifully with late-blooming shrubs like panicle hydrangeas
- Provide excellent winter interest
- Can be left to provide food and cover for wildlife over the winter
- Can be used as a softening touch beside hardscaping or hard corners
- Many are North American natives that have played important ecological roles in our prairie systems, and are well loved by beneficial insects and wildlife
- Many species are very long lived
So let’s get to know our grasses better! Here are some very popular species and varieties used successfully by New England gardeners for decades:
MISCANTHUS, most commonly called Maiden Grass, includes approximately 20 species. Grasses in this genus are also sometimes called Maiden Grass, Fairy Grass, Chinese Silver Grass, Flame Grass, Japanese Silver Grass, Susuki Grass, or Eulalia Grass. Miscanthus is native to Asia. The abundance of cultivars makes it possible to find a Miscanthus suitable for many ornamental grass landscape projects. Foliage can vary widely, meeting various aesthetic desires. A warm season grass, meaning that it will grow and perform best during the hot months of the growing season. In stock now:
‘Variegatus’, commonly called Japanese Silver Grass
PANICUM, commonly called Switchgrass, is a large genus of about 450 species, and can be found from prairies to beach dunes to mountains across the world. P. virgatum was one of the major grasses in the Great Plains Tall Grass prairie of North America, and this native continues to be one of the most common Panicum species found in the horticultural trade. Taller varieties make beautiful screens and backgrounds, while shorter cultivars create lovely sweeps of color and texture. Their beauty and habit make them a smart alternative to introduced grasses such as Miscanthus. Switchgrass is a warm season but cold-hardy perennial. Open, lacy, reddish purple sprays with small seeds appear Aug-Oct. Bright green leaves occur up and down the stem, turning bright yellow in fall. In stock now:
PENNISETUM, commonly called Fountain Grass, is among the most beautiful and graceful ornamental grasses, with its cascading foliage that rustles in the wind. Deep green foliage turns golden yellow in fall. Showy, silvery to pinkish-white, bristly, bottle brush-like plumes arch outward from the clump in late summer like water spraying from a fountain. Native to Africa and Asia, the cold-hardy grass requires very little care, with no serious insect or disease problems. 2-3 foot tall in stature, and they like full sun, heat, and humidity. Plant at least one month before first frost. In stock now: ‘Hamelin’, ‘Karley Rose’, ‘Burgundy Bunny’.
CALAMAGROSTIS, commonly called Reed Grass, is a genus consisting of about 250 species of cool season grasses which are primarily native to moist areas in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Blooms well in light shade, and actually appreciates some light afternoon shade, but will produce fewer flowers and floppier foliage in too much shade. Prefers rich, consistently moist soils that do not dry out. These grasses typically form large, dense, erect clumps of narrow, flattened, green leaves from which rise stiffly upright flowering stalks in summer bearing narrow flower plumes followed by often persistent seeds. In stock now: ‘Karl Foerster’, Korean Feather Reed Grass, Cheju -Do, and ‘Avalanche’.
SCHIZACHYRIUM, commonly called Little Bluestem, is was one of the dominant grasses of the vast tall grass prairie region which once covered rich and fertile soils in many parts of central North America. It typically matures to 2-4’ tall, and features upright clumps of slender, flat, linear green leaves, with each leaf having a tinge of blue at the base. In stock now: ‘Standing Ovation’.
CHASMANTHIUM, commonly known as Northern Sea Oats, is a perennial grass with interesting flat foliage and unique seed heads. A clump-forming, upright, Missouri native, this plant typically grows 2-5′ and most often occurs in rich woods or rocky slopes along streams and on moist bluffs. Seed heads emerge green but turn purplish bronze by late summer, and flutter when caressed by even the softest of breezes. Bright green leaves turn a coppery color after frost and eventually brown by winter. Excellent for dried flower arrangements. No serious insect or disease problems. Easily grown in average, medium to wet, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. One of the more shade tolerant of the ornamental grasses. Self-seeds and may spread aggressively. Leaving foliage in place over winter adds interest to the landscape and helps protect crowns from the cold. Cut back to the ground in early spring. In stock now.
FESTUCA GLAUCA, commonly known as Blue Fescue Grass, is a cool season grass and has more than 300 different species, many of them cold hardy and shade tolerant. The more sun this ornamental grass receives, the more likely it is to achieve its famous blue-gray color. In cold climates, blue fescue grass often turns brown in winter, but many growers leave it standing to help protect the roots from cold. Cut back the foliage in early spring to within a few inches of the ground. This will help make room for the new grass blades and will improve the look of the plant. There are few pest and disease problems with blue fescue, but the plant will die within a few years if it is not lifted and divided. In stock now: ‘Elijah Blue’. A cool season grass, meaning that it will grow and perform best during the cooler months of the growing season.
HELICTOTRICHON, commonly called Blue Oat Grass, is a clump-forming, cool season, ornamental grass which typically grows 2-3′ tall (foliage clump to 2′ and flower stem brings total height to 3′) with a similar spread. Features very narrow (3/8″ wide), spiky, steel blue leaf blades (to 18″) which form a rounded, porcupine-like clump. Resembles blue fescue (Festuca glauca), but is significantly larger. Spikelets of bluish-brown flowers arranged in open, one-sided panicles arching at the tip appear on erect stems rising well above the foliage clump in June. Flower spikelets mature to a golden wheat color by fall. In stock now: ‘Sapphire’.
HAKONECHLOA MACRA, also known as Hakone Grass or Japanese Forest Grass, is grown for its handsome and eye-catching foliage. It’s a long-lived, tough, ornamental grass that, unlike most grasses, loves moist and shady conditions. Native to Japan, its foliage forms attractive, loose cascading mounds of gracefully arching, slender leaves that ripple in the slightest breeze. Ranging from solid green, to bright gold to creamy variegated throughout the spring and summer, the soft foliage changes to exquisite copper-orange shades in the fall as cooler weather sets in. Delicate looking flowers appear in mid to late summer, but are generally unnoticed among the leaves. Hakone Grass is invaluable for adding multi-season interest, color and texture to the shade garden. In stock now: ‘All Gold’ and ‘Aureola’.
CAREX, commonly known as Sedge, are grass-like plants that are drought tolerant, easy to grow and practically maintenance free. At first glance, one might assume sedges are grasses, but they reside in the Cyperaceae family. North American sedges have stepped into the spotlight for many reasons. They’re a smart choice as a living mulch or alternative to the traditional lawn, especially in shady locations. They’re important component of restoration projects, naturalizing, and green infrastructure features. Native sedges are a diverse group and there is bound to be one that fits almost any set of cultural conditions you have.