By Irene Virag
For gardeners fall is a poignant season, when parting is indeed sweet sorrow, from the fading beauty of the roses to the fond farewell of the falling leaves. But still there is joy in the glory of the grass. No, not the kind you mow or reseed; the ornamental grasses that dance in the chilly breeze and match the russet light of autumn.
We write paeans to the roses and songs for the leaves, but what about the ornamental grasses that attest to fall’s poetry? The same grasses that grace the garden throughout the year are at their best now. They need better PR. So let me tell you about some of my favorites.
I prefer grasses with graceful habits such as the many varieties of maidengrass (Miscanthus sinensis). They make lovely backdrops for black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, and coreopsis, or stand proudly on their own.
They’re big—some giants reach 15 ft—and beautiful, with plumes that appear in mid- to late summer or fall in our region and look like tinted corn tassels. The plumes show off in colors ranging from pinkish to reddish, as well as in zebra-stripe and variegated varieties.
All that, and the plumes last through the cold months, catching snow and ice and sparkling in the winter sun. Just shear to a few inches from the ground in early spring and maidengrass bounces back to life.
And I’m fond of Pennisetum alopecuroides, with arching fluffy plumes that suit its common name: fountain grass. Combine it with daylilies or Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ or Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’; or even ‘Golden Sword’ yucca, which holds its shape and color through the cold.
Purple fountain grass, an annual with burgundy blades that turn tawny after frost, prospers in pots as well as flowerbeds. Ditto purple millet (Pennisetum glaucum), with deep-burgundy foliage and almost-black flower spikes.
A variety of feather reed grass called 'Karl Foerster' is high on my list despite a botanical name that makes it sound like a disease: Calamagrostis x acutiflora. 'Karl Foerster' grows straight and about 5 ft tall, standing like a sculpture, with plumes of purplish-pink flowers in early summer and seed heads that stay golden into fall.
The seeds are sterile, so this perennial clump-forming grass doesn't self-sow or become invasive. It’s drought tolerant, long-lived, deer-resistant and does well in Zones 4–9, although it’s happiest in well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. It’s equally at home in containers and mixed borders with low-mounded shrubs, or perennials such as purple coneflowers, asters, and tall sedums. It’s dramatic as a specimen plant or a privacy screen. And you can cut the seed heads for fresh or dried flower arrangements. But if you’re smart you won’t cut back the whole plant until early spring, when new shoots show up.
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ grows 18 inches tall and wide and features ornamental gold leaves striped with green. In autumn the golden foliage takes on tints of red and pink. It grows in Zones 5–9 if you plant it in enriched, well-drained soil. Golden Japanese forest grass, as it’s commonly called, is happy in sun but tolerates shade. It’s not invasive, and deer don’t bother it.
My Hakonechloa glitters near a weeping Japanese maple and cascades over the bank of our koi pond. When a soft breeze rustles, it sways like a hula dancer. You can’t go wrong planting it with hostas, ferns, astilbes, lady’s mantle, epimedium, dark-leafed heucheras, or spring-blooming columbines.
Another mouthful of a name belongs to pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Just when you think the garden season is winding down, pink muhly morphs from a well-behaved green mound into a knockout you can’t resist.
Its delicately cut plumes on 4-ft-tall stalks resemble puffs of pink cotton candy. This long-lived native grass is virtually free of pests and diseases. It stands up to heat, humidity, drought, and poor soil. Deer don’t like it, but birds do. So will you.
For a truly bold look, there’s Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’).
I put it on my most-wanted list when I saw it curving through the perennial and shrub borders at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where I teach journalism. I was touring the school’s gardens with Lynden Miller, the designer who created them. “Don’t those grasses look wonderful?” she said. It was an understatement.
There are so many grasses to choose from—more than I have space for. But let me mention switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), an American native with wispy seed heads that turn into airy clouds above green, blue-gray, or purplish foliage. And blue wheatgrass (Elymus magellanicus), a compact, hardy sun lover from Chile that’s perfect in pots.
So when the leaves fall and the roses leave, don’t despair. The ornamental grasses wave hello.
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