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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 posts written by Fairegarden, look for How To on the sidebar page listing or click here.
Two thumbs up for The Pink Muhly!
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.
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 🙂
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
I’m definitely with you on the value of grasses! Love the Nasella/Stipa/Ponytail/Feather Grass and of course the Muhly sea!
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!
that Muhlenbergia capillaris is fantastic, love ornamental grasses.
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.
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.
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
I like the image of the city mowing the streets 🙂
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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).
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