Louise Curley

05 Oct 2022 10:31

Ornamental Grasses for autumn

There was a time when pampas grass was the most commonly grown ornamental grass in British gardens. Synonymous with seventies and eighties suburbia, the grass developed a reputation for allegedly indicating the owners like to indulge in swinging – that’s wife-swapping and not spending time on an actual swing! As grasses go it’s a bit of a brute – it can be invasive if the conditions are right, the leaves are sharp along the edges and it needs plenty of space; for most gardens it’s grows too big and becomes too dominant. However, the New Perennial Movement, which developed in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in the 1990s and has gone on to be the main garden design influence over the last few decades, has transformed the way we look at grasses, how we use them in our gardens and has opened up whole range of interesting species and cultivars.

Ornamental grasses extend a garden’s structure and interest into the latter part of the year, with many coming into their own in late summer and autumn. Their clumps of foliage and delicate flower heads followed by seed heads will often stand right through the winter. Most are really easy to grow and those in my garden coped admirably with this summer’s heat and lack of rain. They look beautiful in their own right but they also make a fantastic foil for other plants and are a lighter and less bulky alternative to shrubs in this respect. The New Perennial Movement championed the use of grasses and combined them with perennials often from the prairies of North America, plants such as rudbeckia, helenium and echinacea. They’re much more versatile though and can be easily incorporated into borders with plants such as hydrangeas and dahlias and annuals such as cosmos.

Choosing the right grasses for your garden is key as there’s such a wide selection from statuesque giants to hummocky ground-huggers. In my own garden I have several clumps of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, which is probably my overall favourite. It copes with incessant rain and waterlogged soil over winter and drought in summer and it’s one of the best for standing up to autumn and winter weather without collapsing. It has a lovely upright, skyrocket-style habit, is really quick to produce new growth in spring and it doesn’t self-seed.



Anemanthele lessoniana is another great grass. It’s a tough plant happy in a border or in a decent-sized pot. The arching, slender leaves form loose, tumbling mounds of olive green leaves which take on gorgeous coppery-orange tints in autumn. The one downside is that it will self-seed, however, if you want to stop this simply tease out the flower stalks (they come out really easily) before they have chance to form seeds.

Calamagrostis brachytricha doesn’t come into flower until September but it’s well worth the wait for the fluffy plumes which have a tinge of pink. These glisten on autumnal mornings when covered in dew.

Stipa tenuissima isn’t the easiest of grasses to grow as it needs very free-draining, poor soil if it’s to thrive. The heavy clay soil in my borders is less than ideal, but this summer I planted up some plants I’d overwintered in the cold frame into containers filled with old compost and lots of grit and sand. I planted them alongside some lavender, which likes similar conditions, and they’ve all done really well.


Purple moor grass, also known as molinia, grows wild on the moors near my home and I wanted to connect the wider landscape with the planting in the front garden, so here I’ve planted several different cultivars of molinia including ‘Moorhexe’, ‘Poul Peterson’ and ‘Dauerstrahl’. They have fine, wispy flower heads that are a delight from August to October. They don’t stand up as long as the other grasses, tending to collapse in early winter, but they can cope with a bit of shade (they do well in my north-facing front garden) and moist soil.