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Ornamental Grasses

Early spring is the time to plant ornamental grasses as well as to prune back last year’s growth of established clumps so that new shoots can grow unhindered.

Ornamental grasses have emerged as one of the gardeners’ greatest gifts. They are available in a multitude of colorful varieties and require very little care.

Most are drought tolerant and will grow in any kind of soil, although they generally do not like humus rich soil.

Different colors, sizes, and textures of grasses may be arranged in eye-catching groupings. Ornamental grasses also work well in perennial borders, with tall varieties providing an attractive backdrop for bushes and flowers.

Ornamental grasses are of two basic types: cool-season grasses such as blue fescue and feather reed grass that grow best at temperatures up to 74 F and warm-season grasses such as maiden grass and fountain grass that thrive in temperatures of 75 to 85F. The cool-season grasses do their growing in the spring and fall when temperatures are moderate. Warm-season grasses grow slowly in spring and flower in late summer or early fall. Some gardeners plant early bulbs such as tulips or daffodils with warm-season grasses. As the grass grows it will cover the bulb foliage as it falls back.

A mix of warm- and cool-season grasses can provide interest from spring through fall. Plant the cool-season grasses in front of the warm season grasses in a border.

To prepare grasses in spring, cut down dried clumps to several inches above the ground using a power hedge trimmer. You can also burn down grasses if they are far enough from other plants, bushes, and trees to avoid damage from the scorching heat.

For a solo specimen that will truly be an attention grabber, plant pampas grass. It grows to 12 feet with showy silver or pale pink plumes. Because pampas grass is hardy only to 20F, gardeners in colder climates may try Andes Silver or a six-foot variety called Pumila, hardy to 5 to 10 F.

For shady gardens, a good choice to plant is Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola,’ a Japanese forest grass that has been named 2009 Perennial of the Year. Japanese forest grass brightens up shady gardens with its gold colored leaves. Unlike other ornamental grasses, it loves rich soil and requires watering. Plants are nonspreading and can reach a mature height of about 1.5 feet.

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