Grasses- The Backbone of the Fall & Winter garden

There are grasses to suit every need and every garden no matter what climate you live in.  Slowly over the summer they grow and slowly by fall they capture you with the amazing structure they bring to the garden. They explode as the season progresses providing a perfect backdrop for late summer and fall blossoms like Dahlias and Black-eyed Susan’s. I now have so many different grasses in my garden and they serve as the backbone of each of my different beds. The foliage and seed heads can be variegated, gold, blue, red, dark-leaved, moisture loving, shade loving, sun loving, tall, short or just spectacular for fall color. They make great companions to other perennials like roses. They can be planted in planters, used just as accent plants, used to line or create pathways, to edge a border or even in water gardens.

When the light shines thru the seed heads they are electric; lighting up the entire garden no matter the weather. Grasses capture light like no other plants I know. When backlit they almost glow from within and this is the ideal way to showcase them.


Mine are mixed with Russian Sage, Salvias, Dahlias, Phlox, Black-eyed Susan’s, Daisies and Daylilies. I use them to create backdrops for my flower beds where hardscape is not possible. Certainly if you have a wall or other structures grasses can soften those features.


The texture of different grasses provides a plethora of finely textured shapes all within the category of grasses.  You could just have grasses and no two would look the same. I love that grasses are such low maintenance plants.  Frankly, other garden plants take plenty of my time so these hard working plants can just take care of themselves.

Here are some of my grasses. Frankly, I’m losing track as my grasses as tags get lost.  When choosing grasses for your garden remember to check the water and light requirements, pest issues like deer and rabbit resistance before selecting.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Zebra’ – ornamental grass Zone 5-9 Hgt 3-4’ (6-8’ tall when flowering) Wine-purple fading to tan; winter interest; Full sun to part shade

Little zebra-1


Miscanthus sinesis “Gracillimus’ – ornamental grass- Zone 5-9 Hgt 4-7’. (8’ tall when flowering) Copper maturing to Silver; Great winter interest; Full sun to part shade


Grasses add in-3

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ – Maiden Grass – Zone 5-9 Hgt 4-6’ (Flower stalks 6’ tall) Narrow green leaves with white Variegation on margins; Silvery appearance; Full sun to part shade but best in Full sun (far back left next to Norway Spruce)

Morning Light and Moudry-1


Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ – Feather Reed grass – Zone 5-9 Hgt 3′ (5′ tall when flowering) Purplish-Green flowers turn golden as seeds mature; Winter interest


Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima’- and ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ – Maiden Grass Zone 5-9 Hgt 3-4’  (Can reach up to 8’ tall) Very showy; Full Sun

Grasses add in-2

Grasses Yakushima-1


Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ – Switch Grass Zone 5-9 Hgt 4-5’ (6’ tall when flowering) Olive green to bluish-green foliage with yellow flower panicles; Winter Interest; Full sun to part shade.  Full Sun is best


Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ – Switch Grass Zone 5-9 Hgt 3’ (5’ tall when flowering) Silver-green leaves turning burgundy red; Winter interest; Full sun to part shade, Full sun is best

Grasses add in-1

Morning Light-1

Panicum virgatum ‘Ruby Ribbons’ – Switch Grass Zone 4-9 Hgt 2-3’ (4’ tall when flowering) ; Blue-green foliage that matures to purple-red. Performs best in Full Sun


Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ – Switch Grass Zone 5-9 Hgt 3-4’ Burgundy-Red foliage with reddish pink flower panicles; Full sun to part shade

This year!
Just planted last year

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’ – Black Flowering Fountain Grass Zone 5-9 Hgt 2- 2.5’ (3’ tall when flowering) Best in full sun but can take part shade; Dark purple flower spikes (cover photo)

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Red Head’ – Red Fountain Grass Zone 5 -9 Hgt 2.5-5’; Winter interest; Burgundy-Red plumes; Full sun

Softening hardscape (rock and fountain)

Pennisetum oritentale ‘Karley Rose’ – Oriental Fountain Grass Zone 5-8 Hgt 18″  (3’ tall + when flowering) Winter interest; Showy, fluffy, pinkish-white flower spikes; Full Sun

Karley Rose-1

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ – Little Blue Stem Zone 5-9 Hgt 3-4′ Brilliant fiery colored foliage though the fall


Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ and ‘All Gold’ – Japanese Forest Grass Zone 5-9 Hgt 1 – 1.5’ Woodland Grass – Part Shade- Aureola is a golden striped form; All Gold has bright golden yellow leaves.


Chasmanthium latifolium – Northern Sea Oats Zone 3-8 Hgt 2 – 5’ Self seeds if not cut; Good in an area that you can naturalize- another words- let it do its thing. Full sun to part shade; Seed heads emerge green but turn purplish bronze. Bright green leaves.


Carex morrowii ‘Evergold’ – Sedge Part Shade Hgt 12-14″ (in front of bird bath)


I also use annual grasses for color contrast and backdrop in my annual bed.

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ – Fountain Grass -Zone 9-10 Hgt 3-5′ Full Sun


Now for the topic of cutting down grasses in fall.  This is really a question of taste.  Can you see your garden from the house? In winter, let’s face it – if we can’t see these plants or structures in the garden from inside you will not have much enjoyment from them.  In that case cut them down.  I typically leave mine up but tie them around so they don’t flop at the first sign of snowfall. This way I can watch them sway in the breeze, or more accurately WIND at my house! Be sure in either case that they get cut down in early spring before the new growth starts. Having said that some grasses do self seed and those you will want to deadhead or just cut down. I forgot to do that last year with my Sea Oats and I paid dearly for it all this year pulling out those unwanted seedlings.


If your grasses are starting to have large areas that are not blooming it is probably time to divide them.  There are many great books out there on grasses. I really like “Grasses” by Nancy Ondra.

One of the best resources for plant information is Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.  I use this to check zone compatibility, water and sun requirements, deer and rabbit resistance and soil preference.

As you drive around notice how grasses are being used in your area!

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