In the Garden:
The bronze flower heads of Korean feather reedgrass lend soft texture to the fall garden.
They may be ubiquitous, they may be passe, but ornamental grasses still bring grace and beauty to the garden year round. For me, the grasses are among the most adaptable perennials, and I use them throughout the garden. They seem to grow and thrive no matter what the weather. And perhaps best of all, these stunning flower heads of autumn in lush tones of beige and gold continue to keep the garden interesting during winter.
A Plethora of Grasses
Twenty years ago the pickings were slim for gardeners looking to grow grasses. You might have considered growing one or two forms of maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis), clumps of blue fescue (Festuca ovina gluaca), or, if you lived in USDA Zone 7 or warmer, pampas grass (Cortaderia selloiana). Today, however, hundreds of varieties are available, with more new ones each year.
Grasses come in all manner of sizes, shapes, and forms, with different growing and climate requirements. If you have a public garden or garden center nearby, you could view different grasses there. Short of that, check out the recommended Web sites for links to various online sources of information or look for catalogs or books on grasses.
Favorites at Chanticleer
On a recent expedition to Chanticleer (one of the best public gardens in the United States, in Wayne, Pennsylvania), I made some new best friends among the grasses. Korean feather reedgrass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) really stood out, with large, plumy heads on 3- to 4-foot plants. And I looked with envy at the lush border planting of hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'). Mine has never done well, but in Chanticleer it was inspirational.
Ornamental grasses need very little care, but we've had a wet, windy autumn so far, and some of the maiden grasses are falling over. Although it would have been best to start a plant support system earlier in the season, I can still insert a few stakes around the edge of the grass plantings and then connect them around the plants with garden twine.
Fall is a good time to thin and divide ornamental grasses - or you can do this work in early spring if you want to enjoy full-size plants during the winter. Except for the smaller grasses, dividing grasses is not the easiest of chores. Besides a very sturdy shovel, you might also want to have a crowbar, saw, or ax on hand to cut the clumps into sections. Discard dead parts of the grass clump and replant the thriving portions, cutting back foliage by one-third.
Preserve the Winter Charm
Unless you are a neat freak, don't cut ornamental grasses back in the fall. Their sculptural forms and soft colors in the garden make winter bearable for me. Last year, my mother got on a tear and cut back all the maiden grasses. And she did see the error of her ways. Much better to wait until early spring, then cut back all clumps to just a few inches above the ground. A chain saw may be necessary for bigger clumps!
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