Grasses for all seasons

As we rapidly approach autumn, summer flowering perennials start to fade, however this is the time that ornamental grasses come to life

Stipa tenuissima with Crocosmia 'Venus' + Miscanthus 'Morning Light' with Rudbeckia 'Herbstonne'Grasses may be at their best during autumn, but for me this group of plants gives interest from spring all the way through to winter. At the start of the year they delight with new fresh foliage bursting through, they then throw forth their wonderfully architectural flower spikes in summer and finally a kaleidoscope of autumnal bronzes, reds and golden yellows as the plants go over. If the right plants are selected, you can even have some solid winter structure from grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Graziella’ or Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, which are sturdy and hold up to cold winter winds right through until spring.

These grasses form the backbone of the planting on Clover Hill at RHS Garden Hyde Hall where things are planted not in threes or fives, but in 30s or 40s to give big impact. They add height, texture, colour, movement and even sound as the wind blows them around. I find some of them, such as Stipa tenuissima and Miscanthus nepalensis, incredibly tactile and it is hard not to run my fingers though them every time I walk past.

Verbena hastata f.Rosea with Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster and Pennisetum 'Tall Tails'In a border, they also act as a great foil for flowering plants such as Verbena bonariensis, Heleniums, rudbeckias, crocosmias, salvias, gauras and scabiosas …the list goes on! What’s also good is that grasses such as Stipa gigantea and Molinia subsp. caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’ have airy flower heads, which catch the light spectacularly and you can see through them. This allows for wonderful glimpses through and as such, they don’t cast much shade.

Stipa gigantea

Great for wildlife

As well as giving gardeners a whole year of treats, these grasses are a valuable source of food and shelter for our native wildlife. The leaves are used by insects to build nests, some ground nesting birds often nest in some of our bigger clumps, and if you leave the seed heads on over winter, these provide a great food source for birds as well.

Stipa gigantea and Anemanthele lessoniana with crocosmiaGrasses do prefer a sunny spot and free-draining soil. They don't like sitting in wet soil over the winter, so do require grit and compost underneath them on heavy soil. Once this is done they are relatively maintenance free, apart from in spring when our deciduous grasses such as Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Miscanthus, and Molinia are cut back to the ground. Our evergreen grasses such as Stipa gigantea and Stipa tenuissima are just raked through to remove the dead material. Apart from that, sit back and enjoy these fantastic plants all through the year. 

More information

Find out more about dividing ornamental grasses.
Read about 10 grasses with an RHS Award of Garden Merit.


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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.