Ornamental grasses are stars of the fall landscape. Their height, texture and movement add interest that extends well beyond fall into winter. Take note of grasses that catch your eye this fall. Look for examples at botanic gardens or nurseries with display gardens. If you’re unsure if a grass’s height fits in your landscape, use a tall stake or tomato cage to represent the grass in planting beds. That three-dimensional stand-in can help you visualize how a grass would look.
Count on ornamental grasses to create colorful, lively plantings that don’t guzzle water. This pretty grass duet features ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama grass (foreground), with horizontal, eyelash-like seedheads. This drought-tolerant beauty is a selection of a native grass and grows 28 to 32 inches tall and wide (Hardy Zones 4-9). It’s a mid-size ornamental grass that pairs beautifully with other grasses, like tall ‘Pink Flamingo’ muhly grass (Muhlenbergia ‘Pink Flamingo’), which is hardy in Zones 6-10.
No other plant can add movement and catch light like ornamental grasses. They can soften, yet enhance masonry elements with their airy form and uniquely capture and filter the sun's rays. Tip: Be sure to place them where they can catch the light, which will shine through their foliage and flower heads, making them glow and shimmer in the breezes.
A border of ornamental grasses and purple flowers line the edge of a driveway that twists itself through the front yard. Olive trees, lavender and a variety of grasses add Italian flair to this landscape design.
Need an ornamental grass for a spot with light shade? Check out autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis). This non-native grass gets its name from the show it stages in autumn. That’s when tan seedheads appear, standing well above the clump of bright green leaves. Drought-tolerant and easy to grow, autumn moor grass holds its own in a mixed planting bed, adapts well to containers and makes an eye-catching planting en masse. Cut clumps to the ground in winter or very early spring. Plants grow 1 to 2 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 4-8.
Perfect for pots or the front of a border, ‘Burgundy Bunny’ miniature fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) brings cute color to any setting. This small ornamental grass showcases light red hue in summer, followed by blazing reds in fall. The small seedheads appear in late summer and linger until harsh winter weather blasts them apart. This grass works well in rock gardens or low water-use landscapes. Plants grow 12 to 16 inches tall and up to 16 inches wide. Hardy in Zones 5-9.
In snowy regions, grass that goes into winter without being mowed is more prone to develop snow mold. Try to give grass one last cut before winter snows arrive. Also, once the ground freezes, stay off the lawn. Frozen grass is more prone to breaking as you walk on it, which can damage individual grass crowns.
Brighten your yard’s shady spots with a golden waterfall, courtesy of ‘All Gold’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra). Also known as Japanese hakone grass, this glowing beauty boasts naturally cascading growth that makes an elegant focal point. As the name suggests, Japanese forest grass likes a part shade to shady spot with soil that’s well-drained, rich and humusy. Avoid dry, clay or poorly drained soils. This is a slowly spreading ornamental grass, which typically grows 9 to 14 inches tall and up to 24 inches wide. The narrow leaves pair well with broad-leafed hosta varieties or heuchera. Hardy in Zones 5-9.
‘Smoke Signal’ is a selection of a native grass known as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). This variety offers strong, upright stems that maintain their erect posture through fall. Leaves also stage a good fall color show, shifting from red (late summer) to reddish-purple (fall). Tan seedheads appear above leaves in autumn. This sturdy grass grows 3 to 4 feet tall and forms a clump up to 2 feet wide. It’s a great choice for a hot, dry spot where other plants won’t grow. ‘Smoke Signal’ is drought- and salt-tolerant, and deer leave it alone. Hardy in Zones 3-9.
If you’re looking for an ornamental grass that delivers fall interest, check out Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha). Large, foot-long seedhead plumes soar above leaves in late summer, donning a pink tinge that matures to tan. Seedheads dry well and make a nice addition to dried arrangements, or let them age naturally in the garden where they’ll add interest all winter long. Korean feather reed grass likes moist soil and tolerates heavy clay soil. Cut plants to the ground in early spring. Leaves grow 36 inches tall and 20 to 24 inches wide. Seedheads stand 12 inches above leaves. Hardy in Zones 4-9.
Turn up the color with ‘Flashlights’ millet grass (Milium effusum). This bright perennial gives container combinations or planting beds a golden glow. ‘Flashlights’ grows 18 to 24 inches tall and wide, making it a great choice for rock gardens or an edging plant in mixed borders. Give it a spot in full sun with rich, well-drained soil. Hardy in Zones 6-9.
‘Karl Foerster’ is a commonly used feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora)—and it’s easy to see why. Plants form strongly upright clumps that are perfect for creating a living screen or a backdrop for flowering perennials. Wheat-like seedheads appear in late spring and linger through the growing season. ‘Karl Foerster’ tolerates heavy clay soils and is deer-resistant. It doesn’t self-seed, so won’t try to take over your planting beds. Plants grow to 5 feet tall and up to 2 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 4-8.