3 Ways Ornamental Grasses Bring Life to the Winter Garden
By Heather Blackmore for Proven Winners
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners
It may be tempting to cut back your entire garden in preparation for a tidy spring start next year, but you’ll be glad if you leave your ornamental grasses standing through the winter. Who wants to look out the window onto a barren landscape?
While leaving them up protects the crown of the plant from winter weather, ornamental grasses are full of winter interest. They reach their zenith in fall with showy foliage, fluffy flower plumes and interesting seed heads. Throw in a touch of frost or a blanket of snow and ornamental grasses will create interesting long shadows and shapes that bring interest to the landscape during the darkest time of year. Few perennials bring the winter garden to life like ornamental grasses.
While it may be too late to plant them in the colder regions of the country this fall, spring and late summer are optimal planting times for grasses. Add them to your spring planning list now while the memory of their fall beauty is fresh in your mind.
Prairie Winds® ‘Totem Pole’ switch grass forms a six foot tall, dense cluster of steel blue foliage. Golden yellow seed heads emerge in the fall and attract birds. Plant one for a focal point or several for privacy.
Ornamental Grasses Add Movement
Think about how you view your garden. You might spend a lot of time in the cold months looking out onto a barren landscape where frost or snow is probable and blistering wind is inevitable. Why not use wind to your advantage?
Ornamental grasses have the most graceful sway even in the gentlest of breezes. Their wispy leaves and interesting seed heads float and move in unison, changing direction as the wind shifts. Whether it’s one clump of wheat-colored grass or a bed full of it, the fluid motion is mesmerizing and far more interesting than a barren landscape. The whooshing sound of the wind completes the sensory experience as it whips on through all winter long. The bigger the planting, the more dramatic the effect is.
Ornamental grasses play a supporting role in the summer garden where they create a textured backdrop for colorful perennials like coneflowers and phlox. As summer-blooming plants finish their show, ornamental grasses are just hitting their stride, lending shape and structure from fall into winter. Like trees and shrubs, ornamental grasses are part of the “bones” of the winter garden. Their coppery skeletons, etched in frost, take on an ethereal look.
Planted in front of evergreens, their winter silhouettes are even more pronounced. While natives like switch grass (Panicum) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium) maintain an upright habitat through winter, fountain grass (Pennisetum) lends a mounding shape to the landscape. Touched by rain or snow followed by frigid temperatures, they resemble frozen waterfalls.
As autumn arrives, some birds will migrate to warmer locales, but others will stick it out through the winter in your garden. Since food becomes more difficult to find and may be buried beneath a thick blanket of fallen leaves or snow, the seed heads of ornamental grasses become a vital and nutritious food source.
Adding ornamental grasses to your garden will provide habitat, shelter, camouflage and food for birds, small animals, insects and pollinators all year long. When it comes time to cut them down in the spring, consider tossing them into a natural area in your garden rather than sending them out with the yard waste. The hollow stems of many grasses make a perfect nesting habitat for solitary bees and other beneficial insects.