Ornamental Grasses: At Their Finest in the Fall
Ornamental grasses are the highlight of any fall landscape. Few plants can provide so much beauty for so little effort. And fall is an excellent time to plant them, rewarding the gardener with much bigger and showier blooming plants next year. Planting ornamental grasses in the fall is almost like picking up an entire growing season without the work and water.
Landscape Combinations for Maximum Impact
Ornamental grasses should be used in groups integrated into the landscape alongside flowering perennials and shrubs. I'm particularly fond of placing grass combinations in with other plants, rather than plunking single specimens randomly into the yard. In groups they are more visible and dramatic.
Some favorite pairings for sunny landscapes include the following:
- 'Pink Flamingo' Muhly (Muhlenbergia hybrid) and 'Blonde Ambition' Blue Grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)
- 'Thin Man' Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Undaunted® Ruby Muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii)
- 'Los Lunas Blues' Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and 'Shenandoah' Prairie Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Providing Beauty and Habitat
Ornamental grasses are an indispensable part of the habitat friendly landscape as they are used as:
- A food source for many butterfly caterpillars that feed on the leaves.
- Cover and winter protection by small animals, reptiles and ground birds (like quail, roadrunners and pheasants).
- A food source by songbirds, small mammals and insects that feed on the seeds.
Homes for beneficial insect species by providing cover, nesting and overwintering protection for larvae and adults.
- Rain garden plants whose fibrous roots help to filter and clean the water as it moves through the soil and into waterways and aquifers.
Grass Highlights for This Fall:
'Thin Man' Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Indiangrass is a tall, native species with showy seed heads. But Indiangrass's usefulness in the ornamental landscape has been somewhat limited by the variable look and habit of seed grown plants. 'Thin Man' is an exception to this limitation. Propagated by division (breaking apart the crown into small pieces), its tall, strongly upright habit is consistent from plant to plant. The bright blue foliage contrasts beautifully beneath the late summer display of golden-bronze seed heads. Its narrow profile lends it for use in long narrow beds along walls and sidewalks. 'Thin Man' is my introduction originating from the high, dry, windy plains of eastern New Mexico. It's much better adapted to the harsher, drier climates of the West than the other Eastern ecotypes in the trade.
'Shenandoah' Prairie Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
'Shenandoah' comes into its own in the late summer when the green foliage begins to develop its exceptional burgundy foliage and blooms with showy, billowing burgundy-pink seed heads. Tough yet beautiful, it's also a great rain garden plant tolerating wet and dry soil conditions. A native warm season grower.
Windwalker® Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
A big, tall blue-leaved selection of our native Big Bluestem grass, Windwalker® adds size and changing color to the landscape. The bright blue leaves turn pink and purple in the fall. Use it in groups or as a deciduous hedge in front of wood or split rail fences or masonry walls. With its tall stature and numerous "turkey foot" flowers, this grass is especially supple and graceful in the wind. A native warm season grower and 2015 Plant Select® winner.
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