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Minter: Plant ornamental grasses for a summer colour burst

There’s never been such a wide selection of ornamental grasses available to add a fresh look and fun to our summer gardens, writes master gardener Brian Minter.

If there’s going to be a summer more challenging to our gardens, I would be very surprised.

Another cool wet spring, sudden heat and we will probably have our usual drought — wow, a triple threat.

Unfortunately, many folks simply give up on colour and beauty when it should be the prime time for enjoying our gardens. As with all things in life, when given a lemon, make lemonade!

There are many creative ways to inject colour and freshness into our gardens now by choosing heat-loving, drought-tolerant plants that, once established, require minimal care and watering.

Beautiful ornamental grasses transition nicely from summer into fall and winter. The most beautiful is the annual Purple Fountain Grass with its deep burgundy foliage and bunny-tail plumes that dance in every breeze. They look great, even all by themselves, in any container or garden, but are especially attractive when surrounded with hot pink ‘Wave’ petunias. Its cousin, Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’, with its burgundy and pink stripes, is no slouch either when it comes to providing the ‘wow’ factor.

The plumes on hardy pennisetums, however, will just begin to show in late June.

The very compact P. ‘Hameln’ and P. ‘Piglet’ are beauties, so is P. ‘Burgundy Bunny’ with its burgundy striped foliage and dainty plumes. P. ‘Redhead‘ is a little more dramatic with larger bunny-tail plumes that really stand out year after year. These are all winter hardy, drought tolerant and very showy, especially in those hot sunny spots.

Miscanthus grasses also create magic, especially the larger 4–5 foot grasses with big showy flower heads. However, there’s a new trend towards smaller, more compact varieties, like my favourite ‘Yaku Jima’, that brings its beauty down to a lower level for a stunning effect. Even without plumes, variegated miscanthus, like ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’, are quite the showstoppers. Speaking of variegation, M.

‘Strictus’ (Porcupine Grass) is always a hit with its yellow horizontal stripes up and down the stems. A little smaller but very elegant, M. ‘Morning Light’ is a favourite for use in containers or ground beds. Newer varieties, like M. ‘Fire Dragon’, have rich autumn coloured foliage, as well as amazing plumes that gently sway in summer breezes. All of these look stunning when surrounded with perennial rudbeckias, especially ‘Goldsturm’ and ‘Early Bird Gold’ which bloom until frost.

More compact varieties of grasses can turn a dull planter into an interesting display, so keep them in mind too. Evergreen fescues, like the new ‘Beyond Blue’, and the fantastic carex grasses, like ‘Everillo, ‘Eversheen’,‘Everlime’ and ‘Evergold’, are all amazing by themselves or together in combination with virtually any contrasting foliage. Most of these are ‘spill overs’ and look great in containers or in the ground. For a more vertical look, try Acorus ‘Ogon’, a year-round upright plant that grows 12–18 inches tall and is a great accent around other trees and shrubs.

One of the most demanded grasses today is the tall, narrow architectural grass called Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. In group plantings or in containers, it turns heads because of its unique structure. C. ‘Overdam’, a variegated variety, is a beauty too.

Panicums too are becoming popular because of their changing colours late in the summer and their habit of gentle movement in the breeze. Panicum virgatum ‘Little Red Gem’ and P.v. ‘Northwind’ are particularly beautiful.

There’s never been such a wide selection of ornamental grasses available to add a fresh look and fun to our summer gardens. They love the heat and, once established, are quite drought tolerant. Many are evergreen too and carry their beauty into winter.