Good-Natured Grasses for the Winter Garden

This post is adapted from a newsletter article by Adrienne Roethling, Garden Curator at Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden in Kernersville, North Carolina. Thank you to Adrienne for sharing her text and images!

Ornamental grasses give structure, form, movement, and sound to the landscape. They thrive and perform well in the summer and fall. But they’re also a strong element in the winter landscape. In fact, they’re worth growing for their winter interest alone.

To fully appreciate ornamental grasses, mix them into the garden with colorful, bold, or fine-textured plants. Then watch them as they refine your landscape while other plants wither away into a winter coma. With foliage that stands at attention among a barren garden, it’s a statement that will delight onlookers. There is no other plant that can stand erect, provide unique texture, and change color while still showing off for another whole season.

Grasses in this border garden bring beauty to the winter landscape.
The seed heads of Maiden Grass catch the winter sun and add beauty to the winter landscape.

It doesn’t end with their form. Ornamental grasses provide movement and sound in the brisk winds of winter. The seed heads dance like ballerinas, while the stems wave back and forth, whispering as they go. Grasses are a fully functional plant for wildlife as well, providing food and shelter for birds and other critters.

The intricate panicles of Switchgrass.
Switchgrass [Adrienne Roethling]

Miscanthus or Maiden Grasses can be assertive reseeders, but there are plenty of cultivars you can grow that will not seed around. Since 2012, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’ PP15193 has been on display in our garden and has not produced a viable seed. The green leaves produce several 1-inch wide horizontal “gold bars”. Flowers are produced in late summer but afterwards the seed heads become shimmers of light in the winter sky. [HN note: a newer cultivar to try for the horizontal color bars is ‘Gold Breeze’ PP22311.]

Among the favorite of grass lovers has to be Panicum or Switchgrass. Switchgrasses are native throughout North American and can thrive in poor soils. They form a V-shaped silhouette in the landscape, and many selections have a blue-to-gray tone and change to a bright golden color in winter. The light and airy seed heads add interest in the garden as well as in flower arrangements.

Sweet Grama has striking seed heads.
Sweet Grama [Adrienne Roethling]

Bouteloua gracilis or Sweet Grama is another ornamental grass native throughout North America. With its small habit and short nature, this prairie species has very attractive seed heads. The flowers and seeds are produced horizontally at the tip of the culm, and in winter the seeds are bright creamy white. Typically, plants colonize a 3-foot spread, growing to 12-18 inches tall. [HN note: we use the common name Blue Grama for Bouteloua gracilis].

Lastly, Calamagrostis brachytricha or Korean Feather Reed Grass has a graceful look in the winter landscape. Its feathery plumes are quite attractive, going from pink to white to blonde by winter’s end. To see the gold finches land on the somewhat arching stems enhances the movement in the gardens when there’s not much other excitement going on. Expect a 3 by 3-foot plant in no time. Korean Feather Reed Grass grows equally well in dry or poorly drained locations.

Korean Feather Reed Grass has beautiful fall foliage that persists into winter.
Korean Feather Reed Grass has beautiful plumes that persists into winter.

These are just some of the grasses that will improve your winter landscape and give you a renewed appreciation for the season. With hundreds of species to choose from, most grasses are maintenance and pest-free and only require pruning once a year. In the Piedmont region of North Carolina, trim your grasses 6 inches above the ground by March 15 prior to the appearance of new growth. Most grasses prefer growing in full sun and are quite durable in the brutal summers. Lastly, ornamental grasses function in an array of displays such as the rock garden, back or front of the border, woodlands, bogs, prairies, and more.

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