We all think of grasses as plants having long, thin, green leaves. This is the basic theme upon which a number of variations are played.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yuku Jima’

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yuku Jima’ forms a nice clump.

Photo Credit: Wayne Handlos

Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’

Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’ offers bluish inflorescences in the shade.

Photo Credit: Wayne Handlos

When I started my “grass garden room” in my garden, I bought any grass that I found in a nursery. Not everything I bought was necessarily “grass,” but they were all “grasslike,” with long, linear leaves and generally growing in tufts or clumps. I reckoned – incorrectly of course – that any plant for sale in California would be adapted for life here. Although not everything thrived in my grass garden room, some of my random plant purchases did turn out to be quite nice for my yard.

Two plant genera that do particularly well as late summer and fall grass plantings are Miscanthus (silver grasses) and Panicum (panic grasses). As ornamental grasses in the landscape, these plants form very dense clumps of green leaves, and some selections produce reddish leaves in fall, adding to the color palette. These grasses also feature stems that are ultimately topped by inflorescences – clusters of flowers usually borne in some orderly structure. If you’re planning on planting grass in the fall, give these two genera a try.

The inflorescences of Miscanthus compose several long, thin branches, originating from a central or common point. Each branch bears many small flowers among a series of “bracts,” short modified leaves covering and enclosing essential flower parts. Bracts vary in color from selection to selection. Many are just green or tan and not very interesting. On the other hand, some are reddish, bronze or copper, and the many bracts together produce an attractively colored inflorescence. Each flower produces a filament or awn, as well as some silvery hairs below, which gives the inflorescence branch a fuzzy or furry look. When the plants are backlit, the inflorescence takes on a white or silvery sheen, offering yet another reason as to why Miscanthus makes an attractive fall grass planting.

Panicum inflorescences consist of many small branches in a large three-dimensional pyramid or cone. Each branch bears a few flowers, and the bracts are reddish or purple. When used in mass and viewed from a distance, the plants produce an overall bluish or purplish haze.

A further addition to the charm of these plant groups is their gentle swaying in the breeze, adding an element of motion to the garden. As ornamental grasses in the landscape go dormant for winter, they hold their inflorescences for many months, adding interest to the winter yard. I usually cut the plants down near ground level in spring or when new growth around the base becomes visible (in my garden, maybe as early as February or March).

More than their grassy foliage (a desirable characteristic in itself), grasses fill my garden with ornamental plumes that add as much value as the colorful flowers do in other parts of my yard.