Let beautiful ornamental grasses give you reason to love your outside space as the seasons change
Houzz Ireland Contributor Patricia Tyrrell is an award winning landscape and garden… More
Ornamental grasses come into their own at this time of year. Translucent inflorescences light up in the low autumn sunlight and the foliage, too, is often shiny and reflective, which, coupled with a gentle breeze, can really add movement and light to the garden. Grasses tend to be undemanding and unfussy as to soil. They associate well with perennials and bulbs or you can stick to creating just a grass garden with different shapes and textures.
Why go for grasses?
Ornamental grasses are the unsung heroes of autumn. The cool-season grasses offer their flowers generously from early summer and the warm-season grasses grow steadily all season until they have finally soaked up enough sun to flower in the hazy months of autumn. In their flowers and foliage, they reflect the sun and all things autumnal.
There are grasses for every situation – sun or shade, windy or sheltered, wet or dry – and they are a wonderful addition to any garden and are generally low-maintenance, needing only a tidy up once a year.
They also add movement to planting and combine well with perennials or with each other as they offer infinite possibilities in shape, texture and colour.
Bring the beauty of prairie-style planting to your garden
Sow some oats
Stipa gigantea, or Giant Oat, is one of my favourite grasses. The giant flower heads start to emerge from the basal clump around May and shine through the entire summer and into winter, catching every ray of sunshine. The tall stems reach up to 2.4m high, and are so dense that they make a perfect summer screen for a patio or seating area, particularly when backlit by the evening sun. It is also wonderfully useful for cut or dried arrangements.
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Add some fire
Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ is a magical grass. It is slow to appear in spring and will still be a background plant during the summer months as it achieves its full height of about 1.2m. Then, as autumn approaches, the tips of the leaves turn deep red and the delicate panicles are also tinged red. It works really well in big swathes, as in the photo, or in small groups combined with blue, purple or yellow flowers.
Brighten up a shady corner
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ is happy in shady conditions and will even tolerate dryness once established. It is considered to be rampant if it really likes its situation, but generally it expands slowly, forming a lovely, low-growing, arching clump of gold. Once the frosts arrive it turns tawny brown colours, which look attractive in the autumn and winter garden.
Go for silver
Achnatherum calamagrostis, or Silver Spike Grass, is a European native. It is graceful and free-flowering, forming a neat clump of foliage topped by fine-textured silver inflorescences. As autumn approaches, these turn tawny colours and the plant remains attractive through winter in milder climates. It is very drought-tolerant and looks good singly as a specimen or planted in drifts.
Choose a sunny spot
Hot dry sites suit Bouteloua gracilis, also known as Blue Grama grass. It is a low-growing variety with flowers that look like little combs on the end of 30 -45cm-high stems so light and airy that they seem to float. It begins to flower in summer and lasts well into autumn. It can also be used to create a drought-tolerant ground cover or ‘lawn’, as it will tolerate a certain degree of foot traffic.
Be beautiful with bronze
Chionochloa rubra, also known as Red Tussock grass, is a completely evergreen grass that holds its shiny bronze foliage throughout the year and, as a result, is almost completely maintenance-free.
Growing to about 90cm tall, it can be planted in drifts or as a specimen and is amenable to combining with flowers, particularly those with orange or brown tones, or even the textures of ferns. It’s very drought-tolerant and although it will also tolerate part-shade, it really shines in a sunny spot.
Make it a miscanthus
Originating in Japan, Miscanthus sinensis comes in many shapes and sizes; all varieties are clump-forming with vertical or arching stems. New shoots start to appear around March, as soon as the weather begins to warm up, and they grow strongly, achieving heights of as much as 2.5m or as little as 1m. In this image, Miscanthus ‘Ferner Osten’ catches the light with its pink inflorescences.
Colours of the panicles can vary from silver through pink to red. Foliage colour also varies, with some wonderful golden banding in Miscanthus ‘Strictus’ and Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’ and the elegantly rounded Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, which has white margins to the leaves.
The foliage of miscanthus turns golden in the autumn and will hold its colour through the winter months until its annual haircut in the spring.
Embrace fine and feathery
Mexican Feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) is wonderful on its own or combined with other sun-loving, drought-tolerant plants. It is one of the finest textured grasses, blooms in spring or early summer and, as autumn approaches, it turns a light straw colour. It can sometimes be a little invasive, but its grip on the earth is equally light, so it can be removed easily. A quick comb through in the spring and it’s good to go for the whole season. This grass also works really well in containers.
Catch the light
Sesleria autumnalis, or Autumn Moor grass, is a wonderfully versatile grass in sun or part-shade. It is really tough and tolerates quite dry, poor soils. The bright-green foliage grows to about 30cm, turning more golden in the autumn, and the silvery inflorescences grow to about 45cm, lighting up in the autumn sunlight. It can make a wonderful ground cover when planted en masse.
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