Perennials forum: Ornamental Grasses

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Name: Rj
Just S of the twin cities of M (Zone 4b)
Garden Ideas: Level 1 Plant Identifier Million Pollinator Garden Challenge
Oct 18, 2017 3:40 PM CST
Wallflowers: One woman's fascination with grass
By Hannah Jones [email protected] Oct 14, 2017

A Mary Meyer handled a patch of northern sea oats on Oct. 10 to show off their peculiar, flat seed heads.

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CHASKA — When University of Minnesota Extension educator Mary Meyer was a graduate student, she had already earned a peculiar nickname for herself: “the grass lady.”

She was planting as many varieties of grass as she could, studying them and learning about them. Her professors were dubious. But like grass, she just kept coming back.
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When she came to Minnesota from Philadelphia in 1986, her name and her reputation would be tested by an unforgiving climate.

And she could not have been more excited.

“When my husband transferred here in 1988, I said, ‘Great! It’s the coldest place I’ve ever lived!’ “ she said.

Meyer was on a mission. She was going to grow grass here, in Minnesota. The prevailing wisdom of the time was that it was too cold in her new state to cultivate grasses. No one had been particularly interested in trying it. Still, she managed to persuade professor Harold Pellett, who gave her funding to accomplish her goal, and then Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Director Peter Olin, who gave her an “orphan” garden area big enough for 100 varieties.

When she first got her spot in the arboretum, there hadn’t been much there. Now, in its 30th anniversary, the hill marked “ornamental grasses” is in full autumn glory. Pale leaves curl like ribbons, flowers tuft out like ostrich feathers and there’s even a patch of giant miscanthus, tall enough to overshadow a grown man.

“They kind of thought everything would die,” she said. Not a lot was known about how grasses would cope with the Minnesota cold. About a third of the original crop ended up dying, but today, Meyer’s collection is going strong. It contains about 175 different varieties of ornamental grass. On windy days, the sound of all those blades rustling together is like an ocean wave.

Still, it took awhile for people to get half as excited as she was about grass varieties. They’re not exactly as flashy as rose bushes or maple trees, and when people think of “grass,” they’re usually thinking of the monocultured green stuff that carpets their lawns.

“When I used to give talks to people, I would have to say, ‘This is a talk about ornamental grass, not a talk about turf grass,’ “ she said. “People would stand up and leave.”

The story Meyer usually tells is about the time her mother-in-law came to see her collection at the arboretum. She took one look around and said, “Mary, I can’t understand why you don’t get rid of all these weeds.”
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Ornamental grass exhibit

The feathered tops of the grasses fluttered in the breeze on Oct. 10.
Photo by Hannah Jones
It’s hard for Meyer to say what she saw in grass.

“They’re kind of like the underdogs,” she said. She stopped by a patch of northern sea oats, the seed heads of which droop in flat fans at the end of the leaves, almost as though they’ve been pressed in an old book. “People did not realize the beauty of grass is in the diversity. I kind of thought it wasn’t fair.”

She kept plugging along, and by the ‘90s, some growers were starting to show interest in using hardy grasses in landscaping. They’re now widely used in the state, and now, grass is having another moment: an eco-friendly one.

Native grass species are coming to the fore as a staple for sustainable landscapes. Their long roots help prevent erosion and runoff; their low-maintenance growth lower the use of pesticides and fertilizers; and the plants serve as food and habitat for other native species, like pollinators. The University of Minnesota recommends species like big bluestem and prairie cord grass for sustainable gardens.
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Visitors had to walk around an enormous patch of giant miscanthus, which took 30 years to grow.

Developers are catching on, too.

“We’ve been using grasses for 15, 20 years,” Paul Engstrom said, standing on the edge of the ornamentals exhibit. By “we,” he means Robert Engstrom Companies, a developer of “healthy communities” featuring wetlands, prairie and habitat for native species. Paul and Robert Engstrom himself dropped names like prairie dropseed and shenandoah while Meyer grabbed an extra 50 booklets for them on ornamental grasses for cold climates.

Meyer, who came to love grasses for their gardening merits and their beauty, is just beginning to know them for their ecological benefits. She’s learning about the grassland birds that have been pushed out of their habitats by the reduction of grasslands, and the endangered skipper butterfly larvae that need certain species of grass in order to survive.

“I’ve been studying grasses for a long time, and I didn’t know that some specific species of butterfly would only feed on specific species of grass,” she said. “I think the younger generation is really interested in that. They’re interested in what plants can do for them, and the Earth.”

Even though Meyer has been into grasses for years, even though she’s amassed a 30-year-old collection of nearly 200 varieties, she has more to learn. And she could not be more excited.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Name: Gary
Wyoming MN (Zone 4a)
Oct 19, 2017 12:51 AM CST
I really enjoyed the read Rj! thank you
Name: Debbie
Manitoba, Canada (Zone 3a)
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Oct 19, 2017 8:02 PM CST
Thanks for posting this article Rj. There doesn't seem to be a lot of interest in ornamental grasses on the forums, but I find more gardeners are seeing their versatility and beauty. I have added a fair number of grasses in the past few years and I find them very interesting and exciting; maybe not as much as hostas, but getting up there lol. There are a surprising number of grasses that are hardy here, as Mary found in Minnesota. I have some native grasses, of which there are many, and some cultured varieties. Some have done better than others, and some are slow to establish, but they all add a different feel, I think, to the landscape. Some question why I would want to add grasses to the prairie, but I think they just haven't seen their merits yet. I love my grasses!
Name: Rose
Oquawka, IL (Zone 5a)
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Oct 21, 2017 7:05 AM CST
I'm definitely going to have to move my Micanthus! Once established, the grasses seem to do great here in my sandy soil.
Name: Deb
Pacific NW (Zone 8b)
Region: Pacific Northwest Organic Gardener Deer Ferns Herbs Dragonflies
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Oct 27, 2017 12:24 PM CST
I am using grasses more and more - easy care and multi-season interest. DebbieC, I was a bit mystified at your casual comparison of grasses to hostas (say what), but then noted the hosta badge as your first choice, which then lit the light bulb for me! I'm actually thinking of ditching all my hostas and replanting with something less attractive to slugs, so they're kind of on my no-fly list. Funny how our interests change.
I want to live in a world where the chicken can cross the road without its motives being questioned.
North Central TX (Zone 8a)
Million Pollinator Garden Challenge
Dec 31, 2017 12:05 AM CST
Great article. I just happened to stumble on it.

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