Garden Tips - September 2016 - Deborah Carney

We love gardening advice from our friend, Paul Parent. The below is from the Paul Parent Garden Club newsletter of August 18th.

His publications have some wonderful reference material - to go to his full site and see the other topics click here.

Ornamental Grasses for Summer Color 

If I said to you: "don't cut the grass and use it for privacy, color, and the beautiful flower it makes," you will think I have lost my mind, right? After all if you do not cut the grass all year long, the neighbors would probably call the Landscape Police and force you to mow it. You would be right if I was talking about your lawn but have you ever thought of planting ornamental grass in your garden, in a large container instead of flowers, along a fence or making a special garden just for ornamental /decorative grasses?

Ornamental grasses have wonderful arching vertical growth. The plant is graceful looking because of the foliage that moves with the slightest breeze. The plant grows in a clump that is dense but soft looking, even during the winter months when it turns brown and dies back to the ground.Ornamental grasses have a unique texture that will complement both needle and broadleaf evergreens. There is no annual or perennial flowering plant that can give your garden the character of ornamental grasses. Ornamental grass also produces wonderful looking plumes of color on top of the plant during August, changing color during September as the weather begins to cool off.

Ornamental grasses are not eaten by deer or other wild animals that live near your garden. Insect pests and diseases are not a serious problem to these plants. The only maintenance you will need for this plant is cut it down to 4 to 6 inches from the ground in the early spring so the new foliage does not grow with the dead foliage from the previous year and spoil the foliage color. When planted near shrubs that make winter berries, your garden will have great winter character and color contrast. The plants are drought tolerant and they will also give your water gardens much character all season long.

Ornamental grasses come in many different shades of green foliage, depending on the variety you select. If you want about blue foliage? How about green and silver foliage, green and yellow foliage, even green and white foliage? The foliage can be a solid color or have vertical stripes or horizontal stripes on the blade of the grass. Most of the plants will turn red to purple in the fall before they turn brown when the snow begins to fall in December.

The flowers of ornamental grasses are called "plumes" and the variety you select will determine the color, shape, and size of the plume. The plumes begin white in color but change to silver, pale pink, wine-purple, reddish pink and even reddish brown in early September. If height is an issue for your garden, then you're in luck, because different plant varieties begin at 8 to 12 inches tall and will reach as tall as 5 to 8 feet tall. Some varieties stay small ,spreading to 1 to 2 feet wide but other clump varieties can grow as wide as 4 to 6 feet.

You will also find non clumping varieties that spread with underground roots/runners and make wonderful erosion control plants. You can use them near a pond, a stream or even on the side of the road where road salt can be a problem, killing many other plants. If you remove suckers that develop around the base of the plant it will not become invasive in your garden but if you don't watch out it will take over your garden. The most aggressive grass is called "Variegated Ribbon Grass" (Phalaris).

Ornamental grasses are easy to grow, even for the beginner gardener. Just plant them in a sunny garden, but they will tolerate a bit of shade. Some varieties will also tolerate salt spray from the ocean and wind locations near a pond or lake. Soil type is not a problem because it will grow in any soil--even sandy soil like on Cape Cod or the heavy clay-like soil of northern Vermont and Maine. But if you can provide a well-drained, loamy soil that has been conditioned with animal manure, compost or peat moss before planting you will be in for a real treat.

A healthy well-kept plant will attract song birds during the fall and winter months for its seeds. While the plumes are in bloom, butterflies will frequent the plant from August to September, and at any time of the year you can cut the long stems of the plumes and use them in a fresh flower arrangement or cut and dry them for wonderful dry flower arrangements.

Grow the plant in your garden for 4 to 5 years and in the spring dig up the plant and chop it into 3 inch clumps; you have now divided them to make many new plants for your garden or friends and family. Keep the soil on the sweet side and lime every spring or fall for the best growth and fertilize every spring to help motivate the plant back from winter dormancy. I use Natural Alternative Protilizer or Plant-Tone fertilizer in the spring to keep the foliage healthy and encourage the plant to produce lots of plumage in the late summer.

The best small clump ornamental grass with color is Dwarf Blue fescue/ Festuca ovina var. glauca

The best and hardiest tall growing ornamental grasses:

Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus--Maiden Grass: green and white foliage - reddish pink plumes
Miscanthus sinensis 'Little Zebra' -- Dwarf Zebra Grass: green with yellow bands -wine purple plumes
Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'--'Morning Light' Maiden Grass: green and white margins- pink plumes
Miscanthus sinensisPurpurascens Purple Maiden Grass: green to red orange in fall- silver plumes
Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus-- Tall Zebra Grass: green with yellow bands- pinkish plumes
Miscanthus sinensis Variegatus-- Variegated Zebra Grass: green and white striped- pink plumes

The best of medium growing Ornamental grasses:

Pennisetum alopecuroides-- Fountain Grass: bright green foliage - reddish brown plumes
Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln'-'Hameln' Fountain Grass: dark green foliage- creamy tan plumes
Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Little Bunny' - 'Little Bunny' Fountain Grass: green foliage with whitish plumes
Pennisetum alopecuroides Moudry--Black Flowering Fountain Grass: dark green foliage - dark purple plumes

Happy Summer … Deb (September 2016 Horticultural Newsletter)
References: Paul Parent August 18, 2016 Newsletter