To the casual observer, the winter months would seem like the “off season” for gardening and landscaping, when many shrubs (minus the evergreens, of course) just look like sticks, and perennials and annuals vanish back into the ground beneath a bed of fallen leaves.
To the rescue, to save us from drab nothingness in the landscape, come the ornamental grasses! These are truly “four season” plants that need no special care other than a haircut in late winter before new growth commences. They are also dual-function, providing critical food and shelter/nesting material for birds. The following are some of my favorites, and all of these are native to much of the country.
Reaching about 3’ in height, Little Blue Stem (as its name suggests) boasts gorgeous blue-green foliage from spring through late summer, dainty white flowers in summer that become dandelion-type seeds in fall, and then as the weather cools, the blades and stems turn an eye-catching combination of blue-green, purple, and red before becoming a striking orange/tan color for late fall into winter.
A huge favorite of birds (particularly goldfinches, who feast on the seed heads in fall and winter), Switchgrass provides textured vertical interest in the garden (with the height varying by cultivar; ‘Ruby Ribbons’ tops out at 24”, while ‘Northwind’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ reach 3.5 feet). Lush green or blue-green foliage from spring through early fall, with showy pink or white blooms in summer followed by tan foliage and airy seed heads in fall/winter. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ has burgundy red streaks in the leaves as the weather cools.
This shorter, wider grass (2-3’ tall by 3-4’ wide) is all about the blooms! Rounded mounds of whispy blue-green foliage yields abundant spikes of pink or white blooms (depending on cultivar) by late summer/early fall (in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, earlier farther north). The flower spikes turn tan with the rest of the plant over the winter, providing seeds for birds as well as color and texture in the garden. This grass looks stunning in mass plantings! Muhly grass is generally carefree, but does not like moist or soggy soil, particularly during winter. It requires a well drained soil and performs best in zones 7 and higher.