Graceful Grasses for Autumn Colour.
Low maintenance and still underrated, ornamental grasses are a wonderful addition to any garden. Architectural, Wild, Cottage, Japanese, Woodland… They fit in any garden style and add that soft structure and interest in autumn, when flowers are getting scarce.
In the last few years, their popularity has been rising. Because they bring interest to the garden during the colder months and can stand a variety of conditions, including coastal wind for some, they are becoming a corner stone plant in contemporary garden design.
With such variety, however, it can be hard to choose. So here are some tips to find the perfect ones for your own garden and care for them.
Evergreen Grasses for Year-round Colour
These low, evergreen grasses are ideal for the front of the border and containers. Particularly interesting in a neat and contemporary design, they add structure and contrast. Associate, for example, the striking black grass (Ophiopogon nigrescens) with the white variegated foliage of Fatsia Japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ or the lime green leaves of the Heuchera ‘Lime Marmalade’ or Sambucus ‘Aurea’ for an outstanding effect in partial shade.
Need height? Then the Stipa is for you. With flowers standing to up to 2m high, Stipa Gigantea (Golden oats) is perfect for the back of the border or as a standalone. Although the foliage is evergreen, the flowering stems will have to be cut back, but they can be left for the winter as they are, even dry, highly decorative.
Looking for something for shade? Why not trying the liriope. It is not a grass but has the look of it with its arching, dark green leaves. It also bears spikes of small, violet flowers in Autumn, brightening up any dark corner.
Growing tips: evergreen grasses (particularly Carex) benefit from a cut back once a year to encourage new growth. A general tidying of the dead leaves is enough the rest of the time. The ophiopogon is a perfect addition to the shade garden whereas the other grasses will grow best in full sun to partial shade. In regard to the Festuca Glauca, a full sun position with free draining soil is best otherwise its silvery-blue foliage will turn green.
Deciduous grasses with outstanding foliage
We often underestimate the importance of foliage in the garden to focus on flowers solely. However, it is possible to create a garden bursting with colour using foliage only, especially if you consider some of these grasses.
The fiery Imperata ‘Red Baron’, also called ‘Japanese blood grass’ will stand out in any setting in Full sun or partial shade. Combine it with pale green foliage for a harmonious balance or blue flowering plants for a very strong colour mix. Unless you want to create an all grass theme and mix it with the favourite ‘ Stipa Tenuissima’ (Mexican feather grass). The erect and bright foliage of the Imperata contrasts beautifully with the feathery Stipa ‘Pony Tails’ making this an irresistible combination.
For the back of the border, where taller plants are needed, the panicum (switch grass) will give the WOW factor. With foliage starting silvery blue, Panicum ‘Prairie Sky’, adorns itself with brown-red spikes of flowers in late summer, before the foliage starts to change to yellow in autumn. When it comes to making the show in the late season, Panicum ‘Warrior’ and ‘Squaw’ are the stars with their green summer foliage turning yellow, orange and red topped with pink or purple inflorescence standing at 1.5m high.
Last but not least, another japanese wonder is the low growing Hakonechloa. With its bright foliage, it is an ideal addition for under trees. Combine it with Acer palmatum in a Japanese design or simply in your borders, at the front, where it will blend with all sorts of perennials since it is so versatile.
Growing tips: Most of these will prefer a rich, fertile and moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Cut back the dead foliage in spring to encourage new growth.
Deciduous Grasses with Beautiful Seed Heads
There is something about grasses that makes us want to touch them, even more so the flowering ones with their inviting, feathery seed heads. Showing off in Late Summer, when they look at their best, the flowers remain very attractive into the winter. The upright ones are ideal in the borders where they add interest and structure; the lower growing fountain ones will make exquisite features in containers.
The Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’, for example, has become a landscape designer’s favourite for its compact and narrow habit. The creamy flowers appear in early summer, standing at 1.5m high, and mature pale-brown. Either you may, however, prefer the variegated foliage of the ‘Overdam’ variety. Both make outstanding features and can be used in either isolated or mass planting schemes. For an even more subtle effect, you may try the Molinia with its discreet flowers, almost transparent for a very elegant look. Plant these in combination with large flowering plants such as the hydrangea paniculata for a modern and contemporary look.
For more colour, you may try the Miscanthus. Its silky plumes come in shades of white, pink or red and add that special touch to mixed borders. Tolerant of different soil types and hardy down to -20 degrees, it is a versatile plant. With its compact habit and its long flowering season, ‘Pink Cloud’ is a great choice when you need more texture in your garden.
But when it comes to containers, our heart goes to the Pennisetum. The fountain grass is a tufted ornamental with a wide range variety of colour leaf, going from green to the darkest purple and soft bottlebrush-like flowers in summer. Generally, a little smaller than other ornamental grasses with an average size of 60-80cm high, they are ideal as focal points in pots.
Last but not least, certainly the most spectacular of them all with its gigantic plumes adored by florists, the Cortaderia. The Pampas grass is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, even though the trend in flower arranging is growing massively. They are most suited for large gardens where they can standalone or be planted in extra large borders; however, the dwarf variety (Cortaderia selloana Pumila) with a maximum spread of 1m can stand gloriously in any size garden.
Growing tips: Like the other deciduous, they need to be cut back in spring to encourage new growth.