Fall’s arrival brings a new color palette to our world in so many different ways. From the tree canopy above us to the shrubs in our landscapes, everything melds into a rustic array of autumn brilliance. It’s a beautiful season in the garden.
Grasses are a big part of this spectrum, and can make a striking statement wherever they’re planted or placed. As a whole, grasses are under utilized in garden design, entering the periphery only when they start to shine in the late summer and fall months. In addition to the landscape, grasses are also a great way to add seasonal color and texture to your patio pots.
Incorporating native and ornamental grasses into your containers can be a great way to spruce up your pots for the seasonal slow down. This time of year, annuals are getting very root bound and some may be looking a little tattered. If so, pick and choose which you can remove and replace with a grass. If you have mixed containers, then you may be able to remove the center plant and keep the trailers.
By no means does this mean you should give up on your summer annuals, though. There is still plenty of time for colorful annuals to shine before the first frost. But if you are ready for a change, a grass can harness a large container just as well as a sun-loving coleus or geranium.
Consider first, of course, the size of your containers. Pick a grass that will be proportionate to the size of your pots. Grasses come in a wide range of height, from a 12-inch liriope to a 6-foot switchgrass. Think about the pot, it’s placement within your outdoor space and what kind of ambiance you want to create. Different grasses can harness different demeanors, some with feathery plumage and others with rigid, upright stalks.
For smaller, 12- to 18-inch pots (similar in size to what you would place on porch steps) there are many types of sedge and fountain grass that are proportionately perfect. Sedges or carex do best in shady or part sun areas. Many of the more decorative sedges get only 12 to 18 inches tall. The Evercolor series of sedges are common in garden centers and cover the spectrum of variegation. These sedges are perfect for fall containers, as they keep their bright colors all through winter.
For small containers in sunny areas, dwarf fountain grasses (pennisetum) and blue fescues are great choices. Fountain grasses begin their bloom mid to late summer and hold their plumes for months. As fall brings cooler temperatures, foliage changes, too.
So named for their arching fountain-like habit, fountain grasses can easily stand alone within a container. Hameln has always been the standard for dwarf fountain grass, growing 2’ tall with white bottlebrush blooms. Little Bunny, Burgundy Bunny and Piglet are other dwarf choices for smaller containers.
Blue Fescue is very striking in the right color container. Elijah Blue is the standard cultivar only growing to 15 inches tall. Ornamental blue fescues do best in cooler areas of a yard, as the afternoon exposure can cause them to die back.
For larger containers, there are many other options for ornamental and native grasses. Larger fountain grasses are graceful with their white and blush plumes, perfect as a stand-alone plant.
Native switchgrass (panicum) is another good choice, and makes for an unusual choice for a medium to large container. Switchgrass is most commonly used in the landscape, commonly en masse, for praire-like or restoration projects. I feel that it isn’t used in containers as often as it should be. Northwind, Shenandoah, Purple Tears and Heavy Metal are all good choices. Switchgrass can give a patio pot a very rustic autumn feel, as the foliage changes and the seed heads catch the breeze and falling leaves.
Maiden grasses (miscanthus) are a great choice, as well. Maiden grass have a signature fan-shaped bloom, which tend to give a tidy, yet playful mannerism to this species. Morning Light is the go-to cultivar, which very fine bladed with a rusty ivory bloom, growing to 6 feet tall. There are many other smaller varieties available, too.
The fun thing about growing grasses in fall containers is the ability to reuse and incorporate them back into your landscape plantings. I use my containers as focal points in my backyard, changing them as the seasons change. If I’ve opted for a perennial plant, then I always try to find a permanent spot instead of tossing.
At present, I have a container situated around my firepit in which I planted a pennisetum called Red Head. It is a cloud of bronze plumes at present, which should persist into early winter. Once it has passed its peak, I will find a sunny spot to plant it in my yard, as I see no reason to compost a perennial plant.
Even though it’s hot and miserably dry in the Triad right now, we have officially entered the fall season. Temperatures will start to cool down, foliage will start to change and our gardens will take on a different, more dormant look. This is the time for our fall gardens to shine. Ornamental and native grass can be the backbone for patio containers, setting the stage for your seasonal show.