I have written many times about the attributes of ornamental grasses in our landscapes.
Their unique texture contrasts nicely against the coarser foliage of both broadleaf evergreen and deciduous shrubs. Depending on the variety, they can function either as bold accents or as low groundcovers or edgings when planted en masse. They can also work well in containers.
They are a highly varied group of plants with varieties for all types of locations, from full sun to full shade and from dry to wet conditions. While grown mostly for their foliar qualities, they also can boast attractive flowers — although perhaps not in the traditional sense of what we think of as a flower.
In my own garden, I have managed to incorporate more than 72 individual clumps of grasses, representing approximately 13 genera, and I am probably not done adding a few more down the road.
Grasses can be divided into two basic groups, based on their growth cycles.
Cool-season grasses: These begin their growth in early spring, reaching their full size before the summer heat hits. They are usually low- to medium-sized plants, and most are evergreen.
Warm-season grasses: These begin growing in late spring, flower in summer and often provide great fall color.
Of course, in my garden, I have multiple representatives from both groups of grasses, all of which bring me endless joy throughout the season.
This time of year is especially good for fountain grasses, or Pennisetum species, as they are known botanically. These warm-season grasses are very slow to wake up in the spring. I planted a couple of clumps of Burgundy Bunny last fall, specifically for fall interest, and all this spring I kept wondering if the darn things were even alive. Sure enough, in June they finally began to green up, started growing again and now they are in full bloom complementing my asters, aedums, plumbago and kafir lilies, all of which are in full color. It was worth the wait!
There are many choices of fountain grasses to plant in our gardens and this is a great time to observe them at your favorite garden center. The following varieties are hardy perennials and will not spread or reseed. In other words, they are reliable plants that should come back every year, even if it is what feels like forever in the spring.
The Missouri Botanical Garden describes this plant as follows: “This is a compact selection of fountain grass that features colorful foliage and light tan to creamy white flowering spikes. Mature plants form tight tufts, reaching 1 to 1.25 feet tall with a similar width. The foliage matures from green with burgundy-red tips in the summer to completely deep red in the fall.”
According to Monrovia Nurseries, this is “The most dwarf of the fountain grasses with fluffy, buff-colored blooms. Terrific contrast for use in rock gardens, borders, foundation plantings, or in perennial beds. Foliage turns golden russet in fall. Tops out at 10 to 12 inches tall.”
The Royal Horticulture Society has this to say: “’Red Buttons’ has bright green foliage turning yellow in autumn and light brown in winter. Dark red, bristly flowers are produced on fine stems from mid-summer to early autumn. Reaches 2 to 3 feet tall.”
Yes, even fountain grasses come in golden forms. Here is Monrovia’s description: “This showy grass glows in the landscape, with golden spring leaves that age to bright lemon, followed by lime green. Light, airy plumes dance softly above the foliage in later summer, persisting through winter. Fall brings colors of gold and orange.” Makes my mouth water just to read this.
There are many other choices out there besides these four, so take a look and bring a few home to add some fall interest in the garden. Fountain grasses are easy to grow in full sun with reasonably good drainage and will reward you with many years of beauty.
The next free gardening class at Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville is “Spring Blooming Bulbs” at 10 a.m. Sept. 30. For more information, go to www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.
Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.