Good Life

Over the Garden Fence | Ornamental grasses easy to grow for intriguing landscape

As I drove out my lane today, I took notice of the clump of ornamental grass at the end of the lane, whose mission in life is to help mask an electric box from sight.

Looking at it, I thought that soon I would have to be out cutting it back so it can come up again. I have always liked ornamental grasses because they make both the summer and the winter landscape much more interesting.

The ornamental grasses probably are some of the easiest herbaceous perennials to grow in the garden. Their diverse growth patterns provide year-round landscape interest.

The wide variety of forms, textures, colors, interesting flowers and seedheads allow this group of plants to be used in a number of landscape applications.

Those varieties with unique qualities can serve as specimen material among other plants in the garden. A few are large enough to function as screens along the property border or patio areas. Small types will fit well in rock gardens.

As gardeners become familiar with them, some just use grasses for their aesthetic appeal. If you like dried arrangements, the flowers or seed stalks on some can be incorporated into attractive designs.

Perennial grasses can be placed in the landscape the same way that shrubs are used in borders and plantings around the house. Most of the grasses form a dense clump.

They do not spread by creeping rhizomes or stolons like most turf grasses.

This allows you to place them in the garden just as you would other flowers and shrubs. In considering which plant is best suited for a particular location in the garden, it is important to know the overall outline or shape of the plant.

Ornamental grasses take on upright, spreading, mounded, tufted or irregular forms, depending on the type selected. Within these general groups, you can find some types that are more open, while some tend to be very tight and narrow.

Height, overall form and seasonal variation are the three most important factors to consider when using an ornamental grass in a border.

Taller grasses, which tend to lose their lower foliage, look best in the background.

Shorter, full-foliaged types will be more at home in the foreground with other fine-textured evergreens and yews or junipers.

Ornamental grasses require relatively low levels of fertility. By keeping the level of nitrogen low, lodging or flopping over can be kept to a minimum. Leaf color and vigor are good guides to nitrogen requirements. The application of one-half to one pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden area or about one-quarter cup per plant is sufficient. Apply fertilizer just as growth resumes in the spring. An application of a slow release fertilizer, such as Osmocote, in the spring is enough to take care of the plant’s needs throughout the summer. Fertilizer should be watered in thoroughly.

Plants should be well-watered the first season after planting so they can develop a good root system. Established plants do not need regular watering, but may need supplemental watering during periods of drought. The amount of water will depend on the grass species, the site, and the quality, size and growth rate desired.

It is a good idea to cultivate around grass plants to control weeds. An application of mulch will greatly reduce the need for cultivation as well as watering. It also tends to keep grasses in check that have a tendency to be heavy reseeding types.

Grasses do not need to be cut down before winter. In fact, they are attractive when left standing, and the foliage helps to insulate the crown of the plant. Cut back the foliage to about 4 to 6 inches in the spring before growth resumes. When foliage is removed, spring growth will begin earlier. Old foliage left on the plant can delay the crown’s warming and subsequent growth by as much as three weeks.

Division depends on the spacing and visual appearance of the plants as well as the overall health. Plants suffering from die-out in the center should be divided to improve appearances. Division is done in the spring before growth resumes or in the late summer or fall after the growing season. Plants that bloom late could be divided in the spring.

Ornamental grasses are indeed a great addition to the landscape, and I love to watch them in the winter landscape as they dance to a tune played by the winter winds.

Another potential advantage mentioned by others is that they are somewhat deer resistant.