October is the month that the grasses change color from green, blue-green or gold-green to amber, purple or golden yellow and transform tiny flowers to beautiful seed heads.
These are not the lawn grasses but the grasses that provide bold accents to the landscape, create soft borders, dense seasonal screens and provide movement in the garden from late spring to late winter.
There are many non-native grasses that do all that, but there are a number of beautiful native grasses that are easy to grow, don’t become invasive or plant bullies that are really worth looking into.
And possibly best of all, deer never seem to take any interest in eating them! The native Switch grass is a perfect example of a tall columnar grass that thrives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
It prefers to grow in full sun and can thrive in sandy soils to heavy clay soils and in dry or damp soils.
Many of the Switch grass plants are also moderately salt tolerant, making them a choice of plant material that can grow along the banks of tidal streams and rivers.
They are also a nice choice along parking lots and road sides that need to be salted to remove ice in the winter months.
There are a number of native prairie Switch grass varieties that include “Northwind,” “Heavy Meta,” “Hot Rod,” “Cape Breeze,” “Cloud Nine” and “Shenandoah.”
They all have tall slender grass leaves that grow 3-4 feet tall and provide a calm swishing sound when the winds blows through them.
The seed heads are light and airy and are held 2-3 feet above the foliage from late summer throughout the winter, providing color and motion, food and shelter for many native birds in the garden.
“Northwind” has lovely blue green foliage which turns a golden yellow in the autumn while “Heavy Metal” has more of a metallic blue gray foliage with soft yellow in the autumn and bronze colored seeds.
“Hot Rod” and “Shenandoah” give the garden green and burgundy red foliage from mid-summer to late fall with purple or red burgundy seed heads.
“Cape Breeze” is the most salt-tolerant and the foliage stays a beautiful deep green all summer with burgundy tips from late summer to autumn.
“Northwind,” “Cloud Nine” and “Heavy Metal” are the tallest, growing 4-7 feet tall with taller seed heads, followed by “Hot Rod” and “Shenandoah,” which grow 3-4 feet tall. “Cape Breeze” is the smallest, but will fit into many small gardens comfortably.
Little Bluestem grasses are also native and provide a different look than Switch grasses.
They too need full sun and can grow in many different soils.
These plants are shorter, growing 2-3 feet tall with very slender leaves that usually have a tint of blue at the base of the plants.
“The Blues” has more than a hint of blue with many full stems in shades of soft to steel blue that turns into a burgundy red in the autumn and silvery seed heads that float above the foliage.
“Prairie Blues” has silver blue foliage with silver fluffy seed head and turns orange gold in the autumn. ‘
“Standing Ovation” has blue-green foliage with red tips while “Twilight Zone” has silver blue with soft mauve tips that brighten to burgundy in the late summer.
“Blaze” lives up to its name by starting out a soft blue green that begins to show burgundy highlights by mid-summer.
By late summer it begins to blaze into intense shades of orange pink to reddish purple and vivid reds that last into the middle of winter.
“Carousel” is another very colorful compact grass which starts out green with streaks of pink in the summer that shifts to a mix of copper, orange-red and mahogany into the fall, gradually fading into beige in the winter.
“Smoke Signal” grows a bit taller with blue-green foliage that ripens to reddish-purple in the autumn.
All of these native grasses will give color, texture and motion in the garden, needing only a sunny spot to grow.
They only need a bit of maintenance in the early spring to remove the old foliage to allow the new lovely colored leaves space to grow.
Spring pruning also allows the autumn seed heads of the grasses to provide food for the native birds and the colorful foliage will grace that garden with movement, sound and shape through the winter months.
(Editor’s Note: Ginny Rosenkranz is a commercial horticulture specialist with the University of Maryland Extension.)