Late-Season Gardening with Ornamental Grasses

Panicum in winter
This Panicum glows in the evening winter sun.

The word is out about ornamental grasses in winter. Designers have discovered what we’ve known for a long time – late blooming plants, including ornamental grasses, extend garden beauty into fall and winter.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Rise of Fall Gardening,” highlights this new-found interest, citing use of edible plants, late-blooming perennials, and, yes, ornamental grasses. Garden designer, Grace Kennedy, sees a trend toward “lengthening the season” and she “recommends working some late bloomers and ornamental grasses into existing beds or, if space allows, dedicating whole borders to plants that flourish in autumn.”

Why Grasses in Winter?

Miscanthus winter scene
Snow on Miscanthus blooms creates a contrast with evergreen hollies.

When warm season grasses go dormant, many hold beautiful seed heads and dried flowers all winter.

Rigid stems peek out of the snow; graceful panicles shimmer and sparkle when coated with ice and frost. Their striking textures and structures form backdrops for hollies and red berries, and provide a stark loveliness at an otherwise rough-looking time of the year.

Little Bluestem Fall Blooms
Little Bluestem blooms add texture throughout winter months.

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Several ornamental grasses are recognized for having great fall color and seed heads that maintain their beauty long after Jack Frost nips the air.

Panicum virgatum, Switchgrass, is one of them. This North American native turns an attractive orange-golden in the fall and seed heads remain handsome into winter.

Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, and its lovely cultivars, have vivid fall colors – a menagerie of blues, oranges, and reds. Several Little Bluestem varieties stand up to snow and ice.

Some swear that Miscanthus is a masterpiece of texture, structure, and form in the fall and winter garden.

Dixieland Miscanthus
Miscanthus gives a lift to an otherwise slow time in the garden.

We especially like dwarf Miscanthus selections for their manageable size and their tall plumes that rise above the foliage.

Fun with Your Winter Garden
Adventurous-artistic garden types can go “wild” in their winter gardens. We’ve seen folks paint stripes and designs on dormant ornamental grasses. Others add attractive bird houses and feeders; birds love to relax on winter grasses and munch on the seeds. We tend to allow the winter-grass skeletons and silhouettes provide the art.

So, remember: when days get shorter, and the cold winds blow, ornamental grasses keep on giving, even when dormant.

Hoffman Tip
Most warm season grasses do not need to be cut back until early spring before new growth appears. If dormant grass stalks are tattered by winter storms, clip them off as needed.

River Oats in snow
Native Chasmanthium latifolium pokes out of the snow in the Hoffman Nursery shade garden. Ornamental grasses help extend the garden season, even in winter.

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