It’s November and the fall colors have either faded or have been swept away with the brisk north winds. Another growing season is coming to an end. Annuals are finished and perennials have shut down and retreated back to the earth to rest for the next growing season. Some hardy souls hang on to stretch the season into winter. They are a tough group of plants called ornamental grasses.
This family is drought tolerant and thrives in all types of soil. Most ornamental grasses are clump or bunch grasses, which means they won’t spread and take over the whole area like the Amur Sliver grass seen growing in ditches on the countryside. The plants require full sun and are extremely winter hardy. The foliage can be green, blue, maroon or variegated during the growing season. Plumes of fluff form in the late summer unlike flowers with colorful petals we see on many perennials.
After the killing frost the plants lose their color but the plumes remain standing upright on stiff stems. They continue to add texture, movement and interest in the garden well into the winter. Grasses of all sizes, textures and colors have a place in any sunny landscape or garden.
Years ago a friend told me her ornamental grass was the perfect winter weather vane. She planted several grasses outside of her bedroom window and when she got up in the morning she could tell how windy it was.
Ornamental grasses have been around for a long time but did not become popular until after the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. They required less water than most perennials or landscape plants making them eco-friendly during those dry years.
The first grasses marketed were 6 to 8 feet tall, too big for many gardens. Plant breeders began to select smaller and more ornamental varieties to better fit limited spaces. Today there are hundreds of varieties of all sizes and textures to select from. In our area, ornamental grasses can range from 6 inches to 12 feet tall.
Don’t look for large potted grasses early in the spring. The best plants are available early summer through fall. Plant according to label instructions, water well and then stand back and enjoy the beauty of this tough perennial. Established grasses are very low maintenance with no insect or disease problems.
Grasses that have been growing in the landscape for a number of years may need to be split and divided. This is easier said than done. The fibrous roots grow strong and deep, making them very hard to dig and divide. Dig the plants in the spring just as the new growth appears. If possible, dig all around the base of the plant as deep as possible. Lift the plant out of the soil and lay it on the ground. With a very sharp spade cut through the root ball. People have been known to use a saw or chain saw to cut through the roots. Please proceed with caution only if you are experienced with these tools. If the plant is quite old the center or mother plant may be dead or on the decline. Discard this part of the root ball.
The other option of dividing the grass plant is to simply spade down into the root ball and cut off slices from the outer part of the plant leaving the main plant in tack. These slices may be small but will grow and spread in a few short years. Replant your division immediately and water well. Watch the plant the first growing season and water as needed. Once established, ornamental grasses will need very little care.
Late winter or early spring is the best time to clean the plants up. Tie the dead grass together with a cord or rope and cut the bundle off with lopping shears or hand pruner. Grasses can also be burnt off if burning is allowed in your town. Please check with local officials before burning.
Consider ornamental grasses to add summer, fall and winter interest to your landscape. The plumes will catch snowflakes, frost and ice that glisten in the winter sun.
Margo Hansen is the director of programs at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.