Beautiful ornamental grasses transition nicely from summer into fall, says Brian Minter.

Grasses for summer colour

  • Jul. 16, 2017 7:30 a.m.

By Brian Minter

Special to The Progress

If there’s ever been a summer more challenging to our gardens, I would be very surprised. Record cool wet spring, sudden heat and now our usual drought – wow, a triple threat. Unfortunately, many folks simply give up on colour and beauty when it should be the prime time for enjoying our gardens. As with all things in life, when given a lemon, make lemonade! There are many creative ways to inject colour and freshness into our gardens now by choosing heat-loving, drought-tolerant plants that, once established, require minimal care and watering.

Beautiful ornamental grasses transition nicely from summer into fall. The most beautiful is the annual Purple Fountain Grass with its deep burgundy foliage and bunny-tail plumes that dance in every breeze. They look great, even all by themselves, in any container or garden, but are especially attractive when surrounded with hot pink ‘Wave’ petunias. Its cousin, Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’, with its burgundy and pink stripes, is no slouch either when it comes to the ‘wow’ factor.

The plumes on all hardy pennisetums are just now beginning to show and they are fun. The very compact P. ‘Hameln’ and P. ‘Piglet’ are beauties, so is P. ‘Burgundy Bunny’ with its burgundy striped foliage and dainty plumes. P. ‘Redhead‘ is a little more dramatic with larger bunny-tail plumes that really stand out year after year. These are all winter hardy, drought tolerant and very showy, especially in those hot sunny spots.

Miscanthus grasses also create magic. The drama queens are the larger 4-5 foot grasses with big showy flower heads. However, there’s a new trend towards smaller, more compact varieties, like my favourite ‘Yaku Jima’, that brings its beauty down to a lower level for a stunning effect. Even without plumes, variegated miscanthus, like ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’, are quite the showstoppers. Speaking of variegation, M. ‘Strictus’ (Porcupine Grass) is always a hit with its yellow horizontal stripes up and down the stems. A little smaller but very elegant, M. ‘Morning Light’ is a favourite for use in containers or ground beds. Newer varieties, like M. ‘Ghana’, have rich autumn coloured foliage, as well as amazing plumes that gently sway in summer breezes. All of these look amazing when surrounded with perennial rudbeckias, especially ‘Goldsturm’ and ‘Early Bird Gold’ which bloom until frost.

With so many planters looking tired right now, the more compact varieties of grasses can turn a boring planter into an interesting display. Evergreen fescues, like the new ‘Beyond Blue’, and the fantastic carex grasses, like ‘Everillo, ‘Eversheen’,‘Everlime’ and ‘Evergold’, are all amazing by themselves or together in combination with virtually any contrasting foliage. Most of these are ‘spill overs’ and look great in containers or in the ground. For a more vertical look, try Acorus ‘Ogon’, a year round upright plant that grows 12-18 inches tall and is a great accent around other trees and shrubs.

One of the most demanded grasses today is the tall, narrow architectural grass called Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. In group plantings or in containers, it turns heads because of its unique structure.

Panicums too are becoming popular because of their changing colours late in the summer and their habit of gentle movement in the breeze. Panicum virgatum ‘Little Red Gem’ and P.v. ‘Northwind’ are particularly beautiful.

There’s never been such a wide selection of ornamental grasses available to add a fresh look and fun to our summer gardens. They love the heat and, once established, are very drought tolerant. Many are evergreen too and carry their beauty into winter.

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