How To Have Winter Interest-Garden Grasses


Finding beauty is all about knowing where to look for it. In a garden, it is everywhere, all the time, or it can be. Planting with the idea of leaving be, letting things stand over most of the winter, if they can remain erect with dignity and grace will give interest and satisfaction. There are many grasses of all sizes and colorways that can meet the criteria. The above shot is not a grass, but rather is the fading faire foliage of Lilium ‘Black Beauty’, just because. Onward with the topic.

Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'


Festuca glauca



Sassy and spiky, grasses and grass-likes add the perfect pizzazz to the dreary grey and brown scenery of winter. If there is a white blanket of snow, so much the better. Yellow Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ was first purchased to be denizens of the water, in the pond. It was decided that they took up too much space in the small water feature and they were planted around the perimeter, thinking the overflow would supply enough moisture to keep them happy. They were satisfied. Not afraid to try something new, bits of Acorus were moved all about the garden, including to the driest, sunniest parts of the steep slope. They lived, but were not happy. Learning it is better to at least plant them on flat ground, the crowns were split into hundreds of pieces, filling the ground under the shrubs in front of the main house. Wild violets have taken over there, but when the violets go dormant in winter, there is a sea of gold that brings a smile. Joining the Acorus as the most widely used grass for all season interest is the blue/silver soldier, Festuca glauca. First planted in the knot garden, then spread far and wide as an edger and filler, the blue fescue enjoys regular division to remain in high blue form. Sun or shade, dry or dry, (we really have no wet spots), these two species can be counted on here for year around beauty and color.

Ophiopogon planiscapus


Ophiopogon planiscapus and Acorus by the pond

Suitable size matters, along with color. Combining the recessive to the eye black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus with brighter garden bedfellows of the same stature will heighten the winter interest. We do like the combination of the also recessive dark purple Ajuga reptans with the black, especially when the ajuga is sporting the cobalt blue flowers in spring. These two are spreaders, but not in a dangerous way. Acorus, fescue and black mondo could be planted in drifts to form a river of light and dark curving ripples. This idea has been added to the list of future garden plans. Feel free to borrow it for your own space.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'-stage left


Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'-stage right

Statuesque taller grasses are most useful in every garden. Even though they are not evergreen, fading to the light toasty tan shades, they are quite attractive, whether covered in snow or standing bare to the elements. The blooms come late in the season and sway in the breezes giving much needed movement to a still and somber space. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is sterile, producing no offspring that can upset the delicate balance of the native flora and fauna. Not all Miscanthus are so reproductively challenged, so beware what you bring into the ecological system wherever you live. These two sentinels stand guard on either end of the curb fronting the main house. There have been many divisions of the one stray plant that was found in a pot of the aforementioned Acorus. It was noticed that one strand was taller and green rather than gold in the container, so it was removed and replanted to see what it would become. It was a lucky find and we were pleased with the reveal. We are in the process of filling the top of daughter Semi’s steep and sunny slope with bits of Miscanthus as it becomes available, meaning when these two plants are large enough to spare some more divisions. Her own first plantings are now large enough to offer divisions, which will allow these two to grow on to a good size.

Pennisetum 'Karley Rose'-good guy, er gal


Pennisetum 'Moudry'-bad guy

Pennisetums are somewhat smaller than the miscanthus but still offer plenty of good movement and interest with their dried fox tail blooms. Be sure and get one of the more polite cultivars, such as P. alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ rather than the brute Moundry, which is now taking over the pavement in the street with seeds sowing themselves in cracks. Soon the city will have to mow the street in front here. Literally. But don’t let that discourage you from adding the good guys and gals, including the red and purple types that are not hardy in my zone 7a garden but that do make fine annuals that last well into winter.

Nasella tenuissima


Nasella tenuissima


Evergreen and ever fabulous is the grass formerly known as Stipa, Nasella tenuissima. This is a workhorse in full sun to partial shade, with excellent drainage. Lighter than air, bending without resistance to the slightest of breezes, this grass shines like a beacon in the low light of winter. We are at the northernmost reaches of its hardiness, in full disclosure.

Schizachyrium scoparium


In the new lawn/meadow area the native little bluestem grass, Schizachyrium scopaium holds promise to add its rusty reds to the winter grass scenario. Seedlings pop up all over the garden, gifts from the birds one supposes, and the little bluestems are duly dug and moved to the lawn. It is hoped the seeding will help fill in a bit more than the three or four plants living there now. Gardening is, after all, about the future.

Muhlenbergia capillaris


No listing of Fairegarden grasses could be complete without the Pink Muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris. It is not evergreen but can remain upright enough to be covered in snow or frost and still be pleasing to the eye. As with all the grasses that lose color in winter, it will be cut to the ground after the new year begins, depending on the weather and the energy level of the gardener.

This is the second installment in the How To Plant For Winter Interest series. The posts will all be cross referenced to each other as they are written with links provided at the end of each story. They can also be found in the How To category listed on the sidebar. The current Fairegarden, that name refers to wherever we are living and gardening, has been in existence for over ten years. The planting selections featured in all the blog posts, but especially in the design and how to categories, have been trialed and tweaked during those ten years. The way it looks now did not happen all at once, but has been a course of gradual addition, subtraction and editing nearly every day we have lived here. Books, magazines, blogs and real life garden visiting add to the core knowledge about plants and design, but like Thomas Jefferson, we are but a very young gardener. It continues and will never be done.

How To Have Winter Interest With Non Green Evergreens
How To Have Winter Interest-Seeing Green
How To Have Winter Interest-Shrubs Small And Large
How To Have Winter Interest-The Big Guys
How To Have Winter Interest-Hardscape

For other How To posts written by Fairegarden, look for How To on the sidebar page listing or click here.

Frances

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33 Responses to How To Have Winter Interest-Garden Grasses

  1. Two thumbs up for The Pink Muhly!
    Rosie

    Thanks Rosie. The Muhly is having a very good year. It was still worthy when the family was here for Thanksgiving, they all remarked about it. :-)
    Frances

  2. Valerie says:

    Hi Frances: The ornamental grasses add some architecture to the terrain in winter. Instead of flat and boring we have some lumps and bumps and some stand upright and proud right through the worst weather. It makes my day to look at them. Thanks for sharing your beauties.

    Hi Valerie, thanks. Lumps and bumps sounds good! Even better if there is not too much snow so that you can have the movement the grasses can offer.
    Frances

  3. Liz says:

    Lovely grasses, anything at this time of year is much appreciated and it’s over Autumn and Winter that grasses really come into their own and you can appreciate their beauty and elegance :)

    Hi Liz, thanks for adding to the conversation. Grasses add so much all year, the eye loves seeing them and the movement they provide, no matter what color they have turned. :-)
    Frances

  4. Hello Frances. I am a big fan of grasses too, they add so much to the garden, not least during winter – if they manage to stay reasonably upright! I have a Molinia caerulea ssp arundiacea ‘Windspiel’ which is graceful and stunning until early Autumn, when it suddenly flops. I remove the prostrate flowers, leaving the mounds of straw-coloured foliage for the insects to die in and the birds to forage in. Great post, a good reference.

    Hi Janet, thanks for adding this. Most of our grasses stand upright, but a few a total floppers. The critters need places in which to hide over the cold months especially, when so many of my neighbors do a clear cut! We do maintain brush piles around the perimeter even though those are not what one would call attractive! The grasses large and small make this garden a more interesting place all year. :-)
    Frances

  5. sylvia209 says:

    Frances, great post, thank you. I already have a river of black mondo, I did have another grass with it but decided to take it out as it was a problem with self-seeding. My ‘black river’ doesn’t get thick and lush enough because I keep digging bits up to move around the garden! The last ‘bits’ where moved to accompany autumn crocus (Colchicum), I hope it will stop me digging the bulbs up as well as looking good together.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    Hi Sylvia, thanks for this! A river of any small, or large if you have the room, grass is great! It sure is tempting to move those grasses all over. I hope your Colchicums deter your digging. I am going to do that river of those three, fescue, black mondo and the acorus one of these days. Maybe sketch it on paper first to get the proportions right. Happy gardening to you! :-)
    Frances

  6. I have always planted grasses for the winter as well as fall. Good advice you have for everyone. If they leave them up for the first fluffy white snows, it is a magical scene. I leave mine up all season, and the zebra grass is the opera star,loudly singing, but the small carex ‘ice dance’ is like the ensemble group.

    Hi Donna, thanks so much for adding your experiences here, I can only speak for southern gardens. We have both of the plants you name, I love the singing metaphor! :-)
    Frances

  7. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    The black grass is one of my favorites. I will have to get some of that little blue stem for my garden. I have never had a red leaved grass take here. At least I would have red leaves in fall and winter. Cheers.

    Hi Lisa, thanks for joining in. The little blue stem is in every open field here, including my daughter Semi’s semi-wild garden. It is what I want from her for Christmas, dig me a few or more of those please! They would look very dramatic with the black mondo, but grow taller. Now that would be a vision! :-)
    Frances

  8. Your pink Muhly is amazing. You make a good argument to add more in the garden. When you were reading the latest issue of Garden Ill., did you see the photo of Karl Foerster garden? It was enough to make me add a visit there to my garden bucket list!

    Hi Helen, thanks. I will have to go back to see the Karl garden in Gardens Illustrated. The holiday festivities and preparation may have kept me from studying it as should be. Wouldn’t it be grand to see all of those English gardens? :-)
    Frances

  9. Laurrie says:

    You’ve shown us some lovely grasses, and they’re used so well in your complex plantings! But around here I am starting to find them waaay overplanted… they are everywhere, in every yard and mall strip, many just standing there, used like a shrub in the middle of the lawn, or isolated in a mulch bed, or worse… tied round with string to keep them from waving too much in the wind! Such a beautiful class of plants when used with other plants or planted with restraint.

    Hi Laurrie, thanks. Interesting that you find the grassses overdone and poorly placed. Tied with a string? Blasphemy! We have seen a lot of miscanthus used commercially, but it is still waaaay better than seeing lawn grass.
    Frances

  10. Gail says:

    Frances, I am loving this series~it’s given me a lot to think about. I love, love, love grasses! I lean toward the natives, but, nothing beats the miscanthus for swaying in a garden. Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’ is a great red grass to replace the tender purple and red pennisetum. xxoogail

    Hi Gail, thanks for dropping by. As you know, we welcome the friendly exotics along with the natives. We do have P. ‘Prairie Blue Sky’, it is the worst flopper of them all, although it is blue. Also ‘Heavy Metal’ which is quite nice. Thanks for bringing these to our attention. :-)
    xxxooo
    Frances

  11. Wonderful review of grasses. I can’t wait to see the gold Acorus and black/purple Ajuga and Ophiopogon waves in the future. There is a great new ajuga out there called ‘Black Scallop’. Carolyn

    Hi Carolyn, thanks. There are some places that need a nearly zero maintenance approach and the shorter evergreen grasses will do nicely. And most importantly, I have plenty of them so it will also be zero cost! That ajuga sounds divine, I will look for it. :-)
    Frances

  12. Here in Chicagoland, winter interest with grasses requires finding ones that will stand up under a snow load. I’m still looking for that perfect grass, as little bluestem flops and prairie dropseed is too short for our snowy winters.

    Hi MMD, thanks for joining in the conversation. Your conditions are so different than ours, but might be more similar to Donna’s in Niagra Falls where she uses the Miscathus to stand tall with snow cover. I am going to add that prairie dropseed next year for sure, but it probably won’t be a stand up guy! It will be used more as a cloud effect. :-)
    Frances

  13. Rose says:

    I have been slow to jump on the grasses’ bandwagon, primarily because we have so many weedy grasses that pop up around the back of the farm, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t plant something that looked like these “bad guys.” But I’ve come to really like the look of grasses as I see them in other gardens, and I appreciate your evaluation and tips on all of these that you’re growing, Frances. I did add two ‘Shenandoah’switchgrasses this year, and ‘Karly Rose’ and ‘Morning Light’ are on my list for next season. I appreciate your final comments, too; it’s good to be reminded that a beautiful garden like yours takes time and tweaking.

    Hi Rose, thanks for adding your thoughts here. I know what you mean about the large weed grasses, they are a thorn in my daughter Semi’s live and let live garden. Some, like the little blue stem are highly desirable, even though they are roadside weeds to many people. Only in fall and winter do the rusty shades appear and those cute little cottony tufts that are the seedheads. Your list off grasses are good ones all. The tweaking is ongoing, it is called gardening. :-)
    Frances

  14. Cindy, MCOK says:

    I thought of you yesterday as we drove into Houston and saw mass plantings of Pink Muhly along 610. It was so effective against the stark concrete walls of the freeway. I’m encouraged to see them using more natives in those roadside plantings.

    Thanks Cindy. I am glad to hear of it. They are using more natives here and in Asheville we have noticed as well, on the roadside plantings through town. Those grasses look fabulous. Asheville has a mass of prairie dropseed that makes your mouth drop! HA :-)
    Frances

  15. Dave says:

    I’m definitely with you on the value of grasses! Love the Nasella/Stipa/Ponytail/Feather Grass and of course the Muhly sea!

    Hi Dave, thanks for joining in. Grasses are the great and masses of grasses are THE MONEY! :-)
    Frances

  16. Steve says:

    You manage to package the real beauty of gardening into small, focused shots of what I also happen to regard as beautiful. So often we overlook the simple gorgeousness of what’s right in front of us. Your Black Mondo Grass is what caught my eye the most. I mean – heck – Muhley is pretty and all but we’re in need of new thrills, lol. Great post, Frances!

    Hi Steven thanks so much, as ever you are too kind. The black mondo is admired every time we pass by it, but the camera simply cannot, will not do it justice. I hope you get some for yourself is you don’t already have it. :-)
    Frances

  17. that Muhlenbergia capillaris is fantastic, love ornamental grasses.

    Thanks Sunny, so nice to see you. The Muhly is really holding color for a long time this year, although it is still beautiful in a more subtle way after it fades to tan. What would we do without the grasses? :-)
    Frances

  18. Garden Sense says:

    Inspiring post with great information on different types of grasses. Grasses can be very effective, and you’ve shown good examples of that. But like Laurrie, I find them often planted singly and sticking out like a sore thumb. Like all plants, it’s not just what you plant, but how you combine it with others to create a pleasing scene.

    Hi Chris, thanks for adding your experience here. As far as bad, or let’s say poor planting, don’t blame the plant, blame the planter! HA :-)
    Frances

  19. Benjamin says:

    I gotta put in a plug for Indian Grass (or did you, and I missed it?). I’ve been VERY impressed with how quickly this native grass grows, and the fall color was outstanding, and a surprise. The seed heads are nice, and the denseness of its base shoudl provide good fall cover–and essential nesting material come spring.

    Hi Benjamin, thanks for joining in here. I am thinking that you are talking about Sorghastrums? These may be what many here consider to be weed grasses, growing in the wild along roadsides and in fields. Thanks for bringing them to our attention! :-)
    Frances

  20. Great article on grasses and grass-like plants. Also, it appears to me to be a good inventory of what’s growing in your garden. Happy almost winter.~~Dee

    Hi Dee, thanks. We do use a lot of grasses here. I tried to include only the ones that can stand through the winter, which leaves out the beloved Japanese blood grass and some panicums. The inventory thing is an ongoing project with pages on the sidebar listing what is grown here. It will take years to get that together, then updated as things are added or subtracted. We do love the grasses. :-)
    Frances

  21. easygardener says:

    I like the image of the city mowing the streets :-)

    Hi EG, thanks. Funny, isn’t it? Thanks for reading the text! :-)
    Frances

  22. debsgarden says:

    I love black mondo grass and have been thinking of combining it with yellow and blue plants in my lady garden. I have thought about blue fescue but have never tried it. I’m not familiar with the acorus. I need ground cover type plants that will grow in dry shade/partial sun. You have given me something to consider!

    Hi Deb, thanks for joining in. I love the idea of a lady garden. All the ones mentioned would work for you. We are quite dry everywhere, and these all grow in part shade.
    Frances

  23. Carol says:

    Most excellent info about grasses, but what is more useful for every gardener to understand is that you don’t finish a garden in a season… it takes a lifetime!

    Hi Carol, thanks. Gardening is a journey, a process that does not even begin to give immediate gratification, as you know my friend. :-)
    Frances

  24. Pam/Digging says:

    I really like your comments in your final paragraph, Frances. It is easy for new gardeners to expect their new garden to look like yours after one season and get discouraged. But the garden is a process, and ten years gives you time to create something really magical like Fairegarden (in its current incarnation).

    Beautiful grasses too, by the way. I’m also a fan.

    Hi Pam, thanks so much for adding to the conversation here. I have never stayed in one place long enough to see the gardening efforts come to fruition, but with every success or failure have learned something that will be useful for the next day’s striving towards the vision. You know all about that too, my friend, and the joy that beginning a new garden brings. :-)
    Frances

  25. commonweeder says:

    I only have one tiny slip of a grass in my garden, partly because I’m so afraid of their getting away from me and making dividing a horror. But a post like this makes me think the time has come for me to be brave. BTW, I hope you’ll visit and see my blogoversary Giveaways.

    Hi Pat, thanks for stopping by. I hope you are able to find a non threatening grass to add to your space. You’ll be glad you did! Thanks for the heads up about the Giveaway, and Happy Blogaversary! :-)
    Frances

  26. Janet says:

    Good morning Frances. I love the variety of grasses that you have. Just got my High Country Gardens catalog and they really have expanded their native grass collection. Will have to look into getting more.
    The plant you asked about in my post is probably a Lespedeza, have been trying to research it. Behind the Lespedeza is a Sumac and then some oaks in the woods. Will keep you posted if I figure out what it is for sure.

    Hi Janet, thanks. HCC certainly has some beautiful photos! I will do some research on Lespedeza to see if it was I have been seeing along the roadsides here. I love the ferny look and the fall color and form have been absolutely fabulous. I hope there are patches where it is not cut down so I can see how it looks in the winter.
    Frances

  27. Eliza says:

    Now I want to plant lilies… for fall color! That’s amazing. I wonder how they’d look in front of the pink muhly, too!

    Hi Eliza, thanks for noticing the lily. Black Beauty is by far the prettiest fall foliage, and the longest lasting too. It blooms later than most of the Liliums here, but at over seven feet tall might seem out of place in front of the muhly. Perhaps behind it would be better! :-)
    Frances

  28. Scott says:

    I couldn’t agree more…the grasses are so valuable…and I’m reminded of it every year at this time, when they give so much beauty to the garden. I’m totally envious of your Pink Muhly Grass…I’m still waiting for mine to fill in!

    Hi Scott, thanks so much. The muhly is having an exceptional year after a slow start to blooming. The original two plants were divided to nearly one blade each and planted closely together to form this swath, in case you are interested. It took a couple of years for it to fill in afterwards. Happy Muhly to you! :-)
    Frances

  29. Patsi says:

    Didn’t realize you have such a large selection of grasses.
    Think Black Mondo is one I’d like to have.
    Of course always loving your Pink Muhly.

    Hi Patsi, thanks for that. Black Mondo is a cutie pie, and does mix well with others, the better to see you with, my dear! These are not even all the grasses we grow, but are the ones with the best winter interest. The muhly is having a stellar year. :-)
    Frances

  30. You know, I don’t have a single grass growing in my garden… not one I’ve planted, anyway. This must be rectified. As always, I swoon over your muhly grass (not hardy here, sadly).

    Hi helen, thanks. The muhly is beginning to turn tan now, but if the sun is just right, it still has a pink sheen. There are grasses for your climate, I am sure of it. :-)
    Frances

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