It’s sometime around Labor Day and your garden is past its summer prime. The lilies and peonies are long finished blooming and even your landscape roses look ready to give up for the season. How do you keep your garden looking fresh and interesting as it transitions into fall? Late season ornamental grasses help your landscape make the transition with gentle textures and soft colors.
Grasses are low maintenance garden plants, troubled with few insect or disease pests. Most are very drought tolerant after getting established, some will also tolerate fairly moist soils and are good choices for a rain garden. The only places that ornamental grasses do not grow well are shady areas. Maintenance generally consists only of trimming back the previous year’s dried stems in late fall or winter.
When choosing a site for planting ornamental grasses, try to find a spot that allows the morning or late afternoon sun to backlight the flowers. This can add an extra dimension of beauty to your landscape and is delightful when there's not much else of interest to look at in the garden.
Ornamental grasses can also add texture and structure to the winter garden, when most turn a pleasant gold or buff color. Leaving ornamental grasses uncut in winter also provides a source of food and shelter for birds.
Useful both in the landscape and as a dramatic statement in containers, there is an ornamental grass suitable for almost every garden. Try one of these proven performers:
Pink Muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
Native to the eastern U.S., Pink Muhlygrass has distinctively airy pink flowers in late summer that later fade to a soft beige. The soft texture of the flowers and fine leaves work nicely with coarser plants and are a standout in fall containers. Pink muhlygrass is moderate in size at about 36” tall (in bloom) and wide.
Dwarf Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana 'Pumila')
Not only is dwarf pampas grass a great choice for an individual accent plant, it makes a great screen when used in a mass. The creamy white flower heads, of which there can be several dozen on a mature plant, are often dried and used in floral arrangements. Although beautiful in the landscape, the leaves are very sharp and can cause cuts so be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when working with this grass.
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)
Another native, switch grass has a beautiful steely-blue color, with some varieties flushing crimson in late season. The upright shape is not prone to splaying and adds formality to landscapes or containers. Switch grass is also tolerant of wetter areas, including rain gardens. Birds are quite fond of the seeds in winter.
Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
The fountain grasses are a versatile bunch, ranging in height from very dwarf at under 12” tall, to nearly 5 feet. The graceful arching form of the leaves and flowers, like water spraying from a fountain, gives fountain grass its name. Unlike the maroon-leafed annual purple fountain grasses, the green form is reliably hardy. The bottlebrush flowers can range from white to pinkish to smoky purple. Pennisetum are particularly tolerant of wet soils.
Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis)
Another ornamental grass that come in many varieties, maiden grass’s flower is an appealing silky tassel that stands above the foliage. It also makes an excellent dried flower. The foliage is also among the most varied, with variegated forms available with horizontal banding (Zebra grass) or lengthwise striping (‘Morning Light’ and other cultivars). Maiden grass is particularly well-adapted to heavy clay soils, but not to particularly wet soils.
Pink Muhlygrass: "Muhlenbergia capillaris 001" by Stickpen - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons>.
Dwarf Pampas Grass: "P1130487 Cortaderia selloana Pumila" by By Magnus Manske - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
Switch Grass: "PanicumVirgatum" by Chhe - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Fountain Grass: By Tubifex (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Maiden Grass: By Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons