Opting for Ornamental Grasses

Autumn weather is the perfect time to add to your garden. It is a great time to plant new trees, shrubs and perennials. If you’re looking to improve the year-round appearance of your garden with some new plantings, consider adding ornamental grasses to your yard. Ornamental grasses come in a wide range of sizes to suit any garden. Smaller cultivars can even be used in container plantings. They offer year-round interest, with showy blooms and seedheads in the summer that persist into the winter, when few flowers bloom. They come in a wide range of colors and texture, and are beneficial to local wildlife, including birds and butterflies.

If you’re consider adding ornamental grasses to your garden this fall, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Home Gardening team shares the following information and advice:

What are ornamental grasses?

Ornamental grasses are any grass plants (other than turf grasses) added to a garden for their horticultural or ornamental value.These are versatile plants that can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions and include both annuals and perennials. Most are clump forming and can be massed or used as finely textured accent specimens in mixed borders.

Caring for ornamental grasses

Ornamental grasses are generally considered low maintenance, but do require some care. They should be cut down to near their base in late winter or early spring before the new growth emerges. This will help tidy up the planting and allow the new growth room to grow. They may also require division every few years. This can be a somewhat arduous task given the dense root systems formed by most ornamental grasses. Ornamental grass clumps that need to be divided may start to dieback in the center, forming a characteristic “donut” shape.

Andropogon gerardii (big blue stem)A dominant grass in our once common tallgrass prairies, the colorful stems, leaves, and seedheads of this tall species make it stand out. ‘Red October’ was selected for its superior fall color and slightly shorter, upright growth habit, making it better suited for the average home garden.

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather reed grass)

This is a cool-season grass with a vertical growth habit and showy seedheads that persist from early summer into winter. Although it puts out most of its new growth during the cooler spring and fall months, this grass will look good all summer long (especially with a bit of afternoon shade). Chosen by Garden horticulturists as a Plant of Merit in 2002.

Melinis nerviglumis (ruby grass)

This annual grass is the perfect accent for a large container or annual planting in the St. Louis climate. Its blue-green foliage is topped with pink flowerheads in mid-summer. Mature clumps will reach around 2-feet tall. ‘Pink Crystals’ was selected as a Plant of Merit in 2007, but ‘Savannah’ has been a favorite of our horticulture staff the past few years.

Muhlenbergia capillaris (pink muhlygrass)

Airy clouds of fluffy, pink blooms are the standout feature of this native grass. Its relatively short stature, topping out at 3′ tall, also makes it suitable for almost any garden.

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ (switch grass)

This selection of our native species features an upright growth habit and shorter overall height. It can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions from drought to occasional flooding and everything in between. ‘Northwind’ was selected as a Plant of Merit in 2012.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

Photo credits: Tom Incrocci, Matilda Adams

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