Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
March, 2001
Regional Report

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Ornamental grass flower heads have served their purpose for this season and need cutting back now.

Four-Season Ornamental Grasses

I have added several ornamental grasses to my landscape over the last two years and have come to absolutely love their visual impact in summer as well as winter. Americans are using more and more ornamental grasses, sedges, rushes, and bamboos in our landscapes, not only for their year-round beauty and interest, but also because of their versatility and durability. Plus, their association with our prairie heritage makes them a favorite in my midwestern garden.

The Lure of Grass

I love my grasses not only for their form and texture, but also for their color, movement, and sound. The subtle colors of both foliage and flower heads span the spectrum from green to silver to red to purple. There are even quite a number of variegated foliage species to liven up the garden.

Ornamental Grass Color and Size

Ornamental grass plants grow quickly but only begin blooming by the end of summer with their dramatic, graceful inflorescences. In autumn, the flowers turn first to subtle oranges and reds and then finally to tawny beige for the winter. The ones I've chosen remain standing through winter, continuing to decorate the landscape. The dried stalks and flower heads catch snow and offer shelter for birds and other animals.

Grasses range in height from just a few inches to more than ten feet tall and can be shaped into low, tuft-like mounds or arching, airy shrubs or upright, towering giants. In addition to their appearance, grasses add soothing sound to the garden, swaying and rustling in the late summer breeze.

Growing Grasses

Happily, ornamental grasses are very easy to grow and need little attention. They thrive in a wide variety of soil and light situations, are drought tolerant, and rarely have problems with pests or diseases. Most grasses grow best in full sun and well-drained soil. They're quite tolerant of low fertility and can be planted in ordinary garden soil with no need for amendments other than an annual top dressing of compost. You can mulch grasses with organic matter such as shredded bark to reduce moisture loss, prevent the freeze-thaw cycle in winter, and provide some nutrients to the grass.

Sun-loving grasses can be grown in part shade but never reach their full potential and usually need to be staked or ringed to keep them from flopping over. But with proper plant selection, you can find grasses that are adapted to part-shade conditions, wet sites, pond or stream banks, slopes, and sandy soils. There's truly a grass for any location.

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