In recent years, gardeners have embraced ornamental grasses because their long, swaying stems and seedheads add a graceful touch to the landscape, especially in autumn. Millet, wheat, amaranth, and the other attractive grain plants you see on these pages also stand out in fall—and, like the ornamental grasses, they sport plump seedheads that nourish the birds when the season is over. Ornamental grains are as easy to grow and problem free as grasses, and they often add more color to the garden. And the grains add a unique look to dried flower arrangements and other seasonal indoor decorations. Look for decorative grains in your local farmers' market and craft stores this season as you plan which of these standout beauties you will sow next spring.
Practical as well as pretty, amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is an easy-to-grow annual that typically reaches 4 to 8 feet tall, with a sturdy, upright stem topped by plumes of seedheads from late summer through fall. The plants also produce an abundance of tiny seeds that are prized as a high-protein grain crop, and the leaves are edible throughout the growing season.
Dramatic in the garden, the showy seed clusters are also terrific when cut for autumn arrangements. 'Orange Giant' produces green leaves and huge orange plumes; 'Hot Biscuit' is similar but has more-spikelike, rusty orange heads. For an even more dramatic color impact, try one of the red-leaved selections, such as 'Hopi Red Dye'. "There's no waiting for it to flower to look good," enthuses Mayo Underwood, owner of Underwood Gardens in Illinois. "In fact, the flowers on 'Hopi Red Dye' are inconsequential. What really stands out is the intense burgundy color of the entire plant."
Red-leaved 'Polish' amaranth left a strong impression on our own Pam Ruch, who manages the Organic Gardening Test Garden in Pennsylvania, where she grew a few different amaranth varieties in 2004. 'Polish' stood out, she says, "because of its striking dark foliage and huge red heads on tall, sturdy plants."
Growing tips: To get this heat-loving grain started in your garden, sow seeds indoors in early to midspring or out in the garden in late spring, and barely cover them. Space transplants or thin directly sown seedlings to stand 12 to 18 inches apart. Most amaranths drop seeds where they grow, so after the first year, you probably won't need to plant them again. Just thin out the volunteer seedlings and enjoy their trouble-free beauty year after year.
Special note: Let amaranth drop its seeds, and you'll be rewarded with loads of beautiful seedlings next year.