When flowers have faded and branches are bare, ornamental grasses take center stage. These perennials enhance the otherwise dreary landscape with their stunning plumes that reach toward bright blue skies and their arching foliage that waves with every winter breeze.
It is the warm season grasses, those that are a bit late to emerge in spring, that retain their ornamental value well into winter. Their flowers are not particularly colorful, but they are hard to resist nevertheless. They begin appearing in the fall, but it is in winter, when those fluffy plumes catch the season’s bright sunlight, that they offer glittering relief to an otherwise dull backdrop.
Ornamental grasses, which offer year-round interest, are not only an impressive plant to have in your landscape, but they are also easy to grow! Many tolerate dry sites, infertile soil and partial shade. And once established, these versatile perennials require little care. They have few diseases and insect pests, and watering and fertilization are usually not necessary. Cutting back the dead foliage each spring is the only chore required.
Warm season grasses come in different heights, habits, forms and colors. They are classified according to their growth habit: tufted, mounded, upright, upright divergent, arching and upright arching, with the shortest usually exhibiting a tufted habit while the tallest are upright arching in form.
There are many varieties of these easy-to-grow grasses, and newer varieties continue to be introduced. Some of my favorites for our zone 7 include:
• Pink Muhly grass, a long-lived, low maintenance, drought tolerant grass with showy pinkish-purple flowers that appear in September, forming a haze that lingers for winter interest. (4 to 5 feet tall)
• Mexican feather grass, (an Oklahoma Proven selection), a graceful, fine textured mounding grass that sways gracefully in the wind. It thrives in full sun and dry soil, so don’t overwater once established. (18 to 24 inches tall)
• ”Blonde ambition” Blue Grama Grass, commonly referred to as eyelash grass because of it’s unique chartreuse flowers that grow horizontally, appearing in mid-summer and aging to blonde seed heads by fall, remaining on the plant right through the winter. (1½ to 2 feet tall)
• “Heavy metal” Switch grass, a tough prairie native that has a columnar form, its seed plumes persisting well into winter, providing a food source for birds. (4 to 5 feet tall)
• Little bluestem, another native prairie grass, is tough as nails and its fine texture is gorgeous when backlit by the sun. Its tan flowers turn silver white as they age. (2 to 3 feet tall)
• Bottle brush grass, a North American native, is a good choice for dry shade. Its bristly seed heads really do look like bottle brushes. (3 to 5 feet tall)
There are many others I could list, but whatever your preference, ornamental grasses add a distinctive vertical element to any garden and lasting winter interest.