Skip to content

Expert Advice on Colourful Winter Gardens with Seed Heads and Grasses

These plants and grasses create the visual drama during winter, the hardest season on your garden

Bookmark article to read later

By House & Garden | July 5, 2024 | Gardens

Perennial plants that form strong seed heads can be the mainstay of the winter garden, especially when punctuated by clipped evergreen structure. Without the distraction of bright colour or new growth, a plant’s unique shape becomes the focus, and as plants start to lean and weave into each other, the contrasting textures and shapes become all the more interesting. Each plant is distilled down to its essential structure in winter, and it is the interplay of these shapes that creates the visual drama.

Lemon Frost spotted dead-nettles basking in the warm, bright fall sunlight. Image: Supplied.

Designers such as Piet Oudolf, a pioneering influence in perennial planting design, have played a large part in popularizing this style of planting, encouraging us to study and appreciate the full lifecycle of a perennial plant, including its demise in autumn and winter. The diversity of seed head form is truly astonishing, with so many different shapes and textures to catch the eye. There are many benefits for wildlife, too, as flower seeds are an important source of food for birds, and the framework of the stems and seed heads provide habitats for many insects.

Piet Oudolf’s top five plants for seed heads

Ornamental grasses that form strong seed heads can be the mainstay of the winter garden. Image: Supplied.

Baptisia australis

Also known as false indigo, this member of the pea family produces deep purple, lupin-like flowers that mature to dark, almost black seed pods in autumn, which last through the winter on sturdy stems.

Echinacea purpurea

The dark cones of all the Echinacea purpurea cultivars are long-lasting in winter and provide a semi-transparent mass of dots to soften other more architectural seed heads.

Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum’

“Plants of this genus posses an architectural quality, emphasized by the foliage and umbel-like heads of softly coloured flowers,” says Piet. The flowers keep their shape as seed heads, thinning to a delicate but robust skeleton.

Vernonia akansana ‘Mammuth’

Like a giant aster, this ironweed blooms in late summer, with lilac flowers held in clusters on robust stems that are branched at the top. The flowers fade to leave fluffy, pale seed heads with brown bases and stems.

Piet Oudolf’s studio is surrounded by a new perennial meadow in which seed heads contrast with grasses. In the foreground is Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’ with its dark stems and small fluffy seed heads

Veronicastrum virginicum

Most veronicastrum cultivars have long-lasting seed heads. Their tiny flowers are packed into narrow, multi-branching spires like candelabra, and fade to shades of buff brown in autumn and winter, giving a textured, slightly bobbly appearance.

Top Five Grasses for Winter

Ornamental grasses are an invaluable addition to a herbaceous border, providing punctuation marks and green texture in the summer months before coming into their own in autumn and winter as other plants fade back. Some grasses are suffused with colour as they fade, while others fade to bone-white, but what they all have in common is their ability to provide soft, dynamic movement in a planting scheme.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

This easy grass is a gift for winter structure, with a tall, columnar habit. Its generous flower plumes gradually fall away, leaving tall, narrow stems that bleach from reddish brown to bone white, holding strong all winter.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. Image: Supplied.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ghana’

Growing to two metres, this magnificent grass is wonderful in autumn, with burnt orange and red foliage. The flowers are dark red in late summer and fade to silver in winter, when it holds its structure until well after mid winter.

Pennisetum alopecuroides f. viridescens

The black-flowered fountain grass offers soft, squirrel’s tail seed heads. ‘These grasses are both beguiling and dramatic,’ says Pauline McBride, owner of Sussex Prairies. ‘With low winter sun pouring through them, they add a particular soft quality to a planting scheme.’

Pennisetum alopecuroides f. viridescens. Image: Supplied.

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’

Panicums form strong, structural silhouettes in winter that are particularly fantastic when covered in frost. ‘Shenandoah’ has reddish leaves and dark red flower heads in autumn, gradually fading to brown.

Pennisetum macrourum

Pennisetum macrourum. Image: Supplied.

This is a much larger pennisetum than the more usually seen alopecuroides form, with dramatic fronds up to two metres tall. Its cylindrical, pipe cleaner shaped seed heads are white-blonde in winter, exploring out from the centre of the grass on arching stems.

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.