Fall is knocking on the door and Mother Nature is not ready to say goodbye. Indian summer is in full swing as blue skies and warm sunshine surrounds us. This season I have been captivated by the ornamental grasses when the afternoon sun glistens from their blades of glory as the florets sway in the breeze adding a shimmer to the landscape.
If you are envisioning adding some texture to your landscape there are many types of ornamental grasses to consider that range in size and color to provide the perfect combination with neighboring plants in the garden. Most ornamental grasses are very drought tolerant and low maintenance, which is always a bonus to any gardener’s palette. They tend to be adaptable to most soils, but prefer good drainage. Ornamental grasses do not need much fertilization. Spring is the best time for applying a balanced 10-10-10 slow release fertilizer sparingly and should be watered in thoroughly once applied. The majority of ornamental grasses will thrive in full sun, but some may acclimate to partial shade.
I suggest leaving ornamental grasses throughout the winter for their added texture to the borders of the garden and the insulation they provide to the crown of the plant. It is best to cut them back right before spring leaving six to twelve inches above ground. As they mature dividing is sometimes needed in early spring to remove center die-out or to encourage growth for the season.
When selecting ornamental grasses to incorporate it’s good to consider the growth rate of the potential maturity of the plant to allow enough room for it to thrive without encroaching on other plants in the space creating competition or visual chaos. There are some types of grasses that tend to dominate a space and will become troublesome to eradicate, so ensure you are choosing ones that don’t have vigorous rhizomes that spread by underground runners, such as the Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrical). This ornamental grass has dramatic red foliage, which is absolutely stunning, but ensure you have the space to let it roam or contain it within a landlocked bed of concrete or in a container.
Clump forming grasses tend to be tidier with a mounding habit and will not spread throughout the garden. Switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch’) makes a great substitute to the invasive Japanese blood grass and will stay in one location reaching three feet tall and wide. The red tones hold well early summer throughout fall.
Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) has outstanding qualities in the landscape with its tight form and structure. It blooms early and in mid-summer plumes of large bronze soft inflorescences rise above the mound of foliage.
Miscanthus varieties exhibit graceful mounding shapes and are very easy to care for. Morning light maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) has a compact habit that makes the perfect complement to smaller garden spaces. Each blade has a perfect creamy white outline that embellishes the green center.
There are many Pennisetum varieties to choose from that all have terrific texture and contrast when planted amongst other shrubs and perennials in the landscape. Black flowering fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’) has dark large plumes that emerge above the shiny foliage. In fall the color of this grass transforms into an intense golden yellow with orange accents.
Burgundy bunny fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Burgundy Bunny’) is the young gun of the black flowering fountain grass. This compact grass offers striking burgundy highlights amongst the green foliage throughout summer with creamy soft plumes that rise above the foliage. The best part of this dwarf grass is when it transcends blazing scarlet in fall until frost.
Grasses provide a great show of texture, color and dimension throughout most of the year in the landscape and should not be overlooked in the planning of your outdoor canvas.