Ornamental grasses – Late summer showstoppers

In August and September, ornamental grasses take the stage. Their soft textured foliage weaves among perennials and shrubs as their flowers and seed heads nod in the wind. With so many varieties there’s pretty much an ornamental grass for every situation. The diversity of size, form, and habit make them suitable for a great variety of ornamental uses, both in the garden and containers and provide a wide range of colors and textures to create interest for all seasons.

“Right now is a great time to plant ornamental grasses, especially Miscanthus and Pennisetum, so that they can get established before the winter,” says Kyle Lambert, Perennial Manager.

Grass Basics — there are two basic types of perennial grasses: cool season and warm season.

Cool Season Grasses

Cool season grasses begin growing in early spring and hit their prime in early summer. Their plumes, officially called inflorescence, are produced in the cooler months.

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Left: Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'; Right: Sesleria autumnalis

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ • Feather Reed Grass
This very popular cool season grass has a distinct upright, clumping habit. Feathery, silvery pink panicled flowers emerge in late spring on reed-like stems. As the flowers mature, they take on a wheat-like appearance that persists into the winter. Very effective in mass, resembling a wheat field set in motion by the slightest breeze. It likes full sun to part shade in average soil. Once established it is drought tolerant and will grow 4-5’ high by 3-4’ wide.

Sesleria autumnalis • Autumn Moor Grass
A neat and tidy, well-behaved warm season grass that is excellent when massed as a groundcover, edging, or as an accent plant. It is quite tough, but also very beautiful, with bright yellow-green foliage arranged in a dense tuft. Purplish black spikes are carried above the foliage in fall. You can see beautiful drifts of this grass at Millennium Park in Chicago. Drought tolerant once established it will 12-18” high by 12-18” wide in full sun to part shade.

Warm Season Grasses

These grasses begin to grow when the temperatures rise in the spring. By mid-May the new leaves emerge and begin growing very quickly and by mid-summer plants begin to mature. They set seed in the summer and fall, then go dormant for the winter. There are a wide variety of available warm season grasses.

Andropogon ‘Blackhawk’ and ‘Red October’ • Big Bluestem
Both of these cultivars are derived from the native Big Bluestem and have been selected for the great purplish color on their leaves. Attractive blue-green leaves transition to a brilliant scarlet then darkens to smoky purple in the fall. Deep purple seed heads are highlighted with bright red-orange pollen. This long-lived and durable grass forms a tall, strictly upright clump. A stunning selection from our native Big Bluestem that once graced the prairies.

Miscanthus • Japanese Silver Grass
Miscanthus are some of the showiest and most beautiful of the flowering grasses. Some grow upright, others arch gracefully. The foliage comes in an impressive array of colors, patterns, and shapes. All are known primarily for their spectacular fall color and magnificent fluffy plumes. All are tough, undemanding garden performers that will tolerate a range of conditions. These beauties will grace your garden all winter and just need to be cut down to a few inches in the spring. These should be planted by mid-September to give them time to get established before the ground freezes.

Pennisetum • Fountain Grass
This group of warm season grasses forms a ‘fountain’ of fine foliage. The showy seedheads look like giant, fuzzy caterpillars. A favorite perennial variety is ‘Red Head’ shows it’s reddish plumes at the beginning of September a bit earlier than most others. All Pennisetums should be planted by mid-September for winter hardiness.

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Left: Miscanthus sinensis 'Graziella'; Right: Schizachyrium scoparius ‘Blue Paradise’

Schizachyrium scoparius ‘Blue Paradise’ • Little Bluestem
The summer striking silvery blue stems develop a deep wine purple color in early fall. This variety has a very upright and columnar habit. A great low maintenance choice for a hot sunny location. Pair with Rudbeckia or Helenium for bright late summer color. Drought tolerant once established in full sun to part shade it will grow 3-4’ high by 18-24” wide.

Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’ • Prairie Dropseed
A beautiful natural selection of one of our favorite native prairie warm season grasses. This fine-textured grass has blue-green leaves that are held more upright and compact than the species. The light and airy panicles are held above the foliage on slender stalks. A delightful addition to the smaller garden or the edge of a border. It will grow 18-24” high by 18-24” wide in full sun and is drought tolerant once established.

Planting and Maintaining Perennial Ornamental Grasses

Grasses are tolerant of average soils, but adding organic soil amendments such as compost or leaf mold will help get your grasses off to a good start. Grasses really benefit from being well watered when planting them. Water frequently the first season so plants develop good root systems. Once established, grasses will only need water during periods of drought.

Grasses do not need to be cut down before winter. In fact, they add interest to the winter landscape when left standing and the foliage helps to insulate the crown of the plant. In early spring before growth resumes, cut back the foliage to about 4-6 inches. Consider using your cut grasses as straw mulch around other plants.

Don’t let the grass grow under your feet. Now is the best time to plant perennial ornamental grasses. We have a great selection of grasses available at both The Growing Place in Aurora and Naperville.

Aurora Location

2000 Montgomery Road,

Aurora, IL 60504

Phone. 630-820-8088

Naperville Location

25w471 Plank Road,

Naperville, IL 60563

Phone. 630-355-4000

Summer Hours

Monday-Friday: 9:00am-6:00pm
Saturday: 9:00am-5:00pm
Sunday: 11:00am-5:00pm 


Growing for the future with
right plants in right places.