I’ve found that ornamental grasses are some of the best providers of this important element in garden design. Now they certainly aren’t very colorful when you compare them to some of the other fall favorites such as asters or chrysanthemums, but they do provide a nice contrast to other plants in the garden.
Some of my favorite combinations are dwarf fountain grass with pee gee hydrangea or purple cordyline, or variegated miscanthus grass against a dark broad-leafed holly. This notion of contrasting textures is really pretty simple. It’s just a matter of taking something that has fine delicate foliage and contrasting it with something with big, bold flowers or foliage.
Another great thing about ornamental grasses is that they are very forgiving about soil. They don’t have to have particularly rich soil. Also, once they get established, they can be quite drought tolerant making them ideal for growing in areas where water is limited.
Ornamental grasses come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, everything from the small sea urchin fescue all the way up to one of my favorites, zebra grass. Zebra grass is bold, tough and easy to grow. It takes its name from the light yellow bands across each individual blade.
I’ve found many ornamental grasses to be cold tolerant, but there are exceptions like purple fountain grass. Unless you live in a very mild part of the country, you’ll have to grow it as an annual, but it’s worth it.
I am addicted to growing ornamental grasses. This addiction is especially acute in fall when they are at their most brilliant. I love the graceful movements of the blades when stirred by a late afternoon breeze and the sparkle of sunlight reflects off morning dew caught in the feathery plumes.
Grasses are such a versatile addition to the garden. They can be used to add texture, height and harmonizing color. They are always stylish whether planted in combination with bold foliage, intricate flowers, or fantastically colored blooms.
Although ornamental grasses step into the limelight in autumn, many varieties are only marginally cold tolerant so it is best to plant them in the spring to enjoy all summer and into fall.
When planting ornamental grasses make sure the bed or container is deeply cultivated, at least 36 inches, to give the root systems room to grow down. This helps increase their drought tolerance. Compost or humus is the only soil amendment needed.
Newly planted ornamental grasses need 1 inch of water weekly for the first growing season. After that they can be quite drought tolerant. Fertilize perennial varieties in spring with a slow release, all-purpose fertilizer. This is also a good time to divide clumps that have grown too large.
Last spring I planted several varieties at the Garden Home Retreat that I think might interest you.
|‘Pink Champagne’ Ruby Grass (Melinus nerviglumis) – The showy pink plumes that appear in mid to late summer make this grass a real show stopper. It’s an annual except in zones 9 and 10, but that’s okay because it grows quickly.|
|Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima) – This grass is also known as pony tail and angel hair because of the delicate and wispy plumes. It propagates by seed so it can become a garden thug. Deadhead the plumes to prevent it from spreading. Cold hardy in zones 5 – 10.|
|‘Eaton Canyon’ Dwarf Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) – ‘Eaton Canyon’ has the same burgundy foliage and plumes as red fountain grass, but in a smaller package. Standard red fountain grass can grow to 4 feet while ‘Eaton Canyon’ matures at only 30 inches. Because it does not reseed as freely as red fountain grass it is a better choice for regions where the species could become invasive. Cold hardy in zones 8 – 10.|
|‘Elijah Blue’ Fescue (Festuca ovina glauca) – This slivery-blue grass is great for flower borders and containers. It stays compact maturing at 8 to 12 inches tall. It is reliably perennial in zones 3 – 10.|
|Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaries) – Muhly grass is a wonderful see through plant because the delicate blades and plumes allow background plants to show through. The plumes of pink muhly grass have a nice coppery pink hue. It grows to 24 – 36 inches tall. Cold hardy in zones 6 – 10.|
I am trying to find out if purple fountain can survive the West Virginia winter weather. I have had healthy, in ground planted, tropical plants for years, some of which endure the odd West Virginia winter weather. Being that purple fountain grass is an annual, would it be feasible to mulch the ground and surrounding plant area with straw, so that it would survive the winter? Excellent website and design and data.
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Unfortunately, purple fountain grass is not reliably cold hardy above zone 9. It would be a risky venture to try and winter it over in West Virginia, which is zone 5b – 6b. As an alternative try grasses that are better suited to your area.
Here is a short list:
- Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (Feather Reed Grass); Zones 4 – 9, very upright
- Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats); Zones 3 – 9, does best in partial shade, may be invasive
- Phalaris arundinacea (Ribbon Grass); Zones 4 – 8, good groundcover where nothing else will grow, somewhat invasive
- Panicum virgatum ‘Haense Herms’ (Red Switch Grass); Zones 5 – 9, grows up to 3 feet, rich reddish purple fall foliage and purple flower heads.