Grasses Add Feathery Plumes to Gardens

by Pam Roy, edited by Bruce Gaudette
October 30, 2010

Backlit by the late afternoon sun, the plumes of Stipa gigantea glow iridescent, lending fairy like magic to the autumn garden.  I love to use ornamental grasses in the landscape.  They wave in the breeze, take little maintenance and add color and interest year round.  The resourceful gardener can find a variety of ornamental grass for most any place in their garden.

Stipa gigantean, or giant feather grass, is just that.  It has a large evergreen presence with the grass blades reaching 2-3 feet tall and the flower/plumes standing 4-5 feet above.  This grass takes up the space you’d imagine a plant with a name like “giant.”

Another grass with some height is Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal,’ or Switchgrass.  Switchgrass adds color with its blue-gray foliage and stands 4 feet tall.  It will tolerate many soil conditions, and sun or part shade.  During the winter, the grass blades turn tan in color.

Silver grasses, or Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yaku Jima’.  Reaching 3-4 feet tall, this grass is green during the summer months with striking red fall colors.  Use this as an accent plant or in drifts of threes or fives.  Miscanthus sinensis purpurascens, another silver grass, starts out in spring with green foliage.  Later in the summer, the drama begins as the foliage turns a striking dark burgundy.  The flower plumes glow with a magenta cast making this a real conversation piece on a late summer afternoon.  Miscanthus s. strictus, with its striped foliage, brings yet another element into the garden.  This silver grass grows to 5-6 feet tall.

Looking for something smaller for the foreground of a bed?  Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra) is a real beauty!  The variety H. m. ‘aureola’ is a small graceful clump 14 inches tall.  The leaves are banded lengthwise with yellow.  This makes a beautiful addition to a shaded rock garden or a woodland bed.  In deep shade, the foliage may be chartreuse or even develop pink tones in the cool fall months.

Then there are the sedges, or grass-like clumps (carex).  Most varieties having evergreen leaves, and most sedges will tolerate moist soil so they can be used in those difficult spots in the yard.  Carex morrowii aureo-variegata is bright golden mass of arching leaves that grow to about 1 foot tall by 1 1/2 feet wide.  Arrange this golden sedge to cascade over boulders along a stream bed or spill over an awkward intersection of path and lawn.  Mix with the tiny vaccinium vitis ideas minus (dwarf lingonberry) ground-cover and summer flowering astilbe arendesii ‘Fanal.’  Carex ‘Cappuccino’ must have been developed for the Seattle gardener.  Its coffee drink colored foliage flops over in colorful mass and adds interest to a container or along a path.  Another sedge, Carex buchannii, with its stiff upright foliage has a coppery color year round.

Fall is an excellent time to introduce some grasses to your garden.  Enjoy their bright new growth next spring and their airy texture in your garden.

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