Several days of cool temperatures and abundant moisture should work wonders for my garden, and as I look out my window on this soggy Monday morning, I swear my plants are jumping for joy, lifting their heads to welcome the raindrops that bathe their dusty, parched leaves and stems. Hopefully, more rain will be forthcoming as the fall planting season approaches to ensure that our perennials, trees, and shrubs are sufficiently hydrated to survive the colder months that lie ahead.

Several days of cool temperatures and abundant moisture should work wonders for my garden, and as I look out my window on this soggy Monday morning, I swear my plants are jumping for joy, lifting their heads to welcome the raindrops that bathe their dusty, parched leaves and stems. Hopefully, more rain will be forthcoming as the fall planting season approaches to ensure that our perennials, trees, and shrubs are sufficiently hydrated to survive the colder months that lie ahead.


Throughout the active growing season, the mixed perennial border presents an ever-changing portrait, with peaks and valleys in the bloom sequence. Attractive foliages serve to bridge the gaps when colorful blooms are less plentiful. Leaves that are tinted blue, gray, gold and burgundy offer color contrasts while others provide lacy, dissected leaves for textural diversity. The large majority of our plants, however, tend to exhibit fairly similar shapes and patterns having rounded leaves and dense, solid, mounded forms. The addition of finely textured, linear foliage is a welcome contrast and few plants rival the ornamental grasses for this attractive attribute.


In addition to the fabulous, architectural stands of the maiden grasses (Miscanthus) and the delightful arching clumps of fountain grasses (Pennisetum), there are numerous varieties of ornamental grasses to provide attractive textural accents for both sunny and shady sites. Several varieties of ornamental grasses provide continuous color with evergreen foliage. A few qualify as groundcovers, which can be viewed as both a positive or negative attribute, depending on your perspective. While the flower and seed heads of a great majority of ornamental grasses could hardly be described as spectacular, many are extremely appealing. Feathery, fluffy plumes, delicate, airy sprays and spikes, or pleasing inflorescences that resemble fuzzy bottle brushes add beauty during the latter half of the growing season and often into the winter months.


Perhaps my favorite ornamental grass is northern sea oats (Chasmanthium) due to its attractive panicles of flattened seed heads resembling oats that rekindle sentimental memories of summer vacations on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The image of golden sea oats swaying on the dunes in the salty breezes, their arched clusters shimmering in the setting sun against a backdrop of the blue-green ocean is forever etched in my memory. When the sea oats bloom each year in my garden, I recall those carefree days visiting this pleasant refuge rich in history and legends, rolling surf and endless sandy beaches. Tolerant of a wide range of soils in sun or partial shade, this 3- to 5-foot-tall clumping grass has slightly broader leaf blades than many other ornamental grasses, and the seed heads are long-lasting when cut and dried. These plants readily seed about and might be considered by some to be a nuisance but if seed heads are removed in the fall, seedlings will be minimized.


Another popular choice for the mixed sunny border is feather reed grass (Calamagrostis). Clumps of slender, wiry foliage up to 3 feet in height produce tall, erect pinkish plumes in June, considerably earlier than most other ornamental grasses. As the summer progresses, the seed heads narrow, turning golden brown and persist into the winter months; plants tolerate average to poor soils and wet or dry conditions.


Blue-tinted foliage is a very desirable addition to the various shades of green that dominate our gardens and several ornamental grasses are available to provide this attractive color contrast. The blue fescues (Festuca glauca) form tidy 8-inch mounds of very thin, blue-gray foliage that are effective as edging plants in borders or foundation plantings. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon) also demonstrates steel blue-gray leaves but is more upright in form, its spiky leaves reaching a height of 12 to 24 inches. Both these grasses maintain their color well during the winter months and prefer sunny, dry, well-drained sites. Blue lyme grass (Elymus arenarius ‘Glaucus’) is equally stunning in color and thrives in dry soils, but growers beware as this striking grass has an aggressive nature and is often best confined in containers.


For shady gardens, several extremely attractive grasses offer marvelous color and textural contrast to broad-leafed hostas. The family of sedges (Carex) forms dense clumps, many resembling mop heads, ranging in height from 6 inches to 3 feet. Moisture retentive soils in partial shade are ideal where many remain totally evergreen throughout the year although some will benefit from a spring haircut to remove winter-damaged foliage. Variegated forms include the green and white-striped cultivars C. morrowii snowline, ice dance and silver scepter, the latter two cultivars slowly spreading to form hansome evergreen ground covers. Equally appealing is the distinctive green and gold C. evergold. A personal favorite is C. Bowles golden, which produces a stunning lime-green to golden yellow 2-foot clump that glows in the partially shady border.


Perhaps the loveliest of all the ornamental grasses is are the Japanese Forest grasses (Hakonechloa). These absolutely charming, graceful, arching grasses slowly spread to form mounds that cascade like waterfalls and are an invaluable addition to the shady border. The most commonly grown variety is Aureola characterized by golden leaves highlighted with rich dark green stripes; equally stunning is the solid yellow all gold. Grow in humus-rich soil in light shade alongside ferns, hosta, and astilbes or nestled among rocks.


For ease of culture and long season interest, few perennials rival the grasses and sedges. It may require some searching to find a broad selection and a little experimentation to feel comfortable with their placement in the garden but your long-term rewards will make the process worthwhile.


Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.