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Who Needs Fall Foliage? These Ornamental Grasses Outshine It

HUE KNEW? October at Le Jardin Plume, near Rouen, France. Grasses Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and miscanthus sinensis ‘Saturnia’ shimmer amid anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’ and Aster ‘Little Carlow.’
HUE KNEW? October at Le Jardin Plume, near Rouen, France. Grasses Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and miscanthus sinensis ‘Saturnia’ shimmer amid anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’ and Aster ‘Little Carlow.’ Photo: Allan Pollock-Morris

THE UNCULTIVATED eye might miss the subtle charms of grasses in fall, seduced instead by the overt allure of dinner-plate dahlias and blazingly bright foliage. But as the days shorten, the botanically aware know that the indefatigable ornamental grasses—in countless colors, sizes and textures—are primed to steal the spotlight and hold it straight through winter.

“Grasses give the garden its opulence and structure in the fall, when there are fewer blooms,” said Patrick Quibel, who with his wife created Normandy’s bewitching Jardin Plume, or feather garden.

The Quibels’ generous, naturalistic use of grasses among delicate perennials throughout the garden creates contemporary combinations that treat grasses as equals, not just a framework for other blooms. Billows of lavender asters float among Miscanthus sinensis‘Saturnia’ (a Le Jardin Plume introduction), whose green blades explode into gold, amber and bronze come fall. White Anemone japonica dapple Achnaterum brachytrichum, an ethereal plume whose downy flower heads, Mr. Quibel noted, glitter in the early morning dew. The changing leaves seem garish in comparison.

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Blue Heaven’ transforms from a steely blue to a brilliant burgundy in the fall, perfect for front-of-the-border frippery. In summer, Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cosmopolitan’ arches tall in ribbons of white and green variegation. Later it crowns itself with rosy tassels pretty enough to distract eyes from perennials in their withered late-season condition. The hardworking Nassella tenuissima’s upright green tufts turn to flaxen cascades perfect for softening up stone paths.

Like Le Jardin Plume, the grass garden at Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Richmond, England, avoids forcing ornamental grasses into rigid, symmetrical grids, a tired modern trope. The Kew grass garden forgoes flowers completely. The forms and textures of its more than 390 grass species, from towering to tiny, combine to create a frothy, undulating effect. In fall, “grasses maintain their structure, capture sunlight and provide graceful movement in the garden,” said Crissy Mulrain, the garden’s supervisor.

Morning frost in the Grass Gardens at Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Richmond, England.
Morning frost in the Grass Gardens at Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Richmond, England. Photo: GAP Photos/J.S. Sira

Ms. Mulrain also noted that because of the breadth in varieties, grasses are a solid answer to questionable corners, be they drought-prone, nutritionally depleted or even dry and shaded. “No matter where in your garden, there is a grass that will do well,” she said.

Ornamental grasses that aren’t evergreen require only a yearly haircut with a hedge trimmer, when the garden transitions from winter to spring, advised Neil Lucas, author of “Designing with Grasses” (Timber Press).

Establish new plants in spring, and because you spend no time watering, deadheading, feeding or staking, grasses will yield a generous yearlong return, from their early-summer fullness to the sparkle under the first frost. “The best plants do all of the hard work for us.” said Mr. Lucas.

GRASS ACTS / Five Species to Add Shimmer and Color to Your Fading Plot
Who Needs Fall Foliage? These Ornamental Grasses Outshine It
Photo: GAP Photos
The Fringe Element

A variegated example, the striped and stately Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cosmopolitan’ boasts arching, cream-and-green foliage that reaches upward of 7 feet. As an added bonus, it bursts pink-tinged tassels in the autumn.

Who Needs Fall Foliage? These Ornamental Grasses Outshine It
Photo: Marianne Majerus
The Leggy Blonde

Tall, effervescent, towheaded—Stipa gigantea turns heads in midsummer when, from a 2- to 3-foot clump, it sprouts a crown of golden flower heads topping 8 feet. After seeding, the flowers retain their structure for late-season interest.

Who Needs Fall Foliage? These Ornamental Grasses Outshine It
Photo: Mary Meyer
The Changeling

Scene-stealing schizachyrium scoparium ‘Blue Heaven’ is a low-clumping little bluestem whose 3-foot stature makes it suitable for front-of-the-border drama, especially in fall when it chameleons from steely gray to shades of fuchsia.

Who Needs Fall Foliage? These Ornamental Grasses Outshine It
Photo: Marianne Majerus
The Billowy Bunch

Nassella tenuissima, or Mexican feather grass, grows low, finely tufted green ponytails that flower into fluffy flaxen strands of 2 feet. A potentially prolific self-seeder, it behaves best within its native Southwestern range and in well-managed gardens.

Who Needs Fall Foliage? These Ornamental Grasses Outshine It
Photo: GAP Photos
The Upright Citizen

Think vertically with Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, whose architectural, reed-like posture reaches 4 to 5 feet, making it a strong statement when its narrow spikes bleach to a golden straw.

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