The Winter Landscape Part One: Ornamental Grasses
by Elaine Christen
In winter, the landscape may not be lush and colorful as in the spring, summer or fall, but there is still a serene, muted kind of beauty to enjoy in a sleeping garden.
In this, the first in a series of six articles, I will explore the many applications of a versatile, yet under sung hero of the winter landscape: Ornamental grasses. Grasses add an element of texture and color to the garden in every season, but are especially valuable in winter. Their flower heads remain on the plant all season, providing structure, interest and, most importantly, motion. When those cold winds blow, swaying grasses bring movement to an otherwise still scene.
Grasses can be used in just about every part of the landscape, from containers, to edging, rock gardens to water features. They look great in masses or as a single specimen. With sizes anywhere from mini to giant, there is a variety to fill any nook or gaping space.
If these virtues are not reason enough to try grasses, there is also toughness. All of the varieties listed below are hardy to at least zone 5 (-20 degrees). Many are drought tolerant once established and most are deer resistant, which is the main requirement for many gardeners in North Idaho.
Caring for these garden gems couldn’t be easier: moderate water (unless otherwise noted), fertilize with a balanced fertilizer when growth begins in spring, and divide every two to three years. After they lend their grace to the winter garden, cut them back to two to six inches, depending on the variety (the shorter the mature size, the shorter they get cut back). Be sure to give them their annual haircut before new growth begins to avoid cutting the tips of the new leaves. Late February is usually about right.
Here are some of my favorite grasses along with some design ideas:
Maiden Grass Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’
This arching, clumping grass quickly grows 5-7’ tall and 3-4’wide with flower heads a bit taller than the leaves. Tan to bronze fall color persists through winter. Perfect for screening, accents and back of borders. For smaller versions, try ‘Morning Light’, 4-5’ tall and 2’wide, or ‘Little Kitten’, just 2-3’ tall and 12”-18” wide. Best in full sun, all are zones 5-9, and are deer resistant.
Golden Japanese Forest Grass Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’
Graceful and colorful, this grass lends the look of bamboo to the shadier parts of your garden. Yellow blades with thin green stripes light up dark areas of the landscape. Great as ground cover or in borders, it is beautiful with darker plants like Ajuga reptans ‘Bronze Beauty’. It was named Perennial Plant of the Year in 2009. It is slow growing and gets 18” tall and wide. Hardy in zones 5-9 and deer resistant.
Feather Reed Grass Calamagrostis x acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’
For strong vertical effects, this is the perfect grass. The green foliage gets about 2’ tall and wide, while the flower stalks can reach 6’. Useful for the back of the border or a quick screen, it looks dramatic in containers or as an accent plant. ‘Karl’ was named Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001. Other Feather Reed Grasses are: ‘Overdam’ which features gold leaf margins, and ‘Avalanche’, with white mid-ribs and 3-4’ tall foliage. They all like full sun, are hardy in zones 4-9 and are deer resistant.
Blue Oat Grass Helictroctrichon semperviroens ‘Sapphire’
This evergreen grass really stands out with its steely blue colored stiff blades topped with buff colored flowers. At 18-24” tall and wide, it fits into many applications, including rock gardens and mass plantings. Its distinctive color contrasts nicely with purple leaved plants like Smoke Bush or Barberry. Blue Oat Grass likes full sun, is hardy to zone 4, drought tolerant, fire resistant, and deer resistant.
Dwarf Fountain Grass Pennesisetum alopecuroides ‘Hamlin’
As the name suggests, this graceful green grass is fountain shaped with buff colored plumes held above the foliage. It is a natural for dry stream beds, next to boulders, in mixed borders and in containers. It gets 2-3’ high and 1-2’ wide, likes full sun and is drought tolerant. For a smaller version, try ‘Little Bunny’ at just 10-12” tall and wide. Hamlin is hardy to zone 4, Little Bunny to zone 5.
Ice Dance Japanese Sedge Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’
With white margins on green blades 12” tall and a habit of slowly spreading, Ice Dance is a perfect groundcover for a shady, moist spot, standing out amongst darker leaved shade lovers. With enough water, it can also tolerate some sun as well. At home in bog gardens and water gardens, Ice Dance is evergreen to -10 Fahrenheit and hardy in zones 5-9.
Porcupine Grass Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’
For a big, dramatic statement, Porcupine grass fills the bill. With its upright, 8’ tall and 3’ wide size, along with distinct gold horizontal banding, this grass fairly shouts “Look at me!” Beautiful in large containers, anchoring a corner, or as a showy screen, this sun lover is hardy in zones 4-9 and is deer resistant.
Purple Silver Grass Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purpurascens’
The name says it all; silvery green clumping grass with purplish plumes, with the bonus of bright orangey-red fall color that lasts through most of winter. This flashy relative of Maiden Grass is a compact 3-4’ tall and wide with flowers reaching 5-6’. It accepts both full and part sun and will add four season interest to the border, containers and accents. It is hardy in zones 4-9 and is deer resistant.
Black Flowering Fountain Grass Pennisetumalopecuroides ‘Moudry’
This is another fountain grass that can be used just about anywhere. 2’ tall by 3’ wide with blackish flowers and orange fall color, this easy to love choice is hardy to zone 5 and is deer resistant.
Now that I’ve introduced you to the charms of grasses, you will probably want to run right out and buy some. Well, you will need to be patient, because they usually are not sold in garden centers until late May or early June. Until then they don’t look like much because they are cut back in the pots by the growers. While you wait, wander around your garden and imagine how grasses can add their special beauty to your landscape winter, spring, summer and fall.
I’m very much looking forward to this series, The Winter Landscape. Next in series: Plants with Colorful/Textured Stems. Until then, thank you very much for reading. If you have any comments on this or other blog posts, please don’t hesitate to ask them here or on our Facebook page or even through Twitter!