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Ornamental Grasses

Posted on 04 March 2011

Grass is a weed, yet a very desirable one within many landscapes and garden settings across Colorado. By contrast to other grasses, ornamental grass is not meant to be mowed, uniform, or  tread upon. So, it is low maintenance, as well. Furthermore, many ornamental grasses are a low-maintenance plant option because they do not require dead heading or excessive watering.

Grasses come in varying heights. Arrange tall grasses in the back, intermediate in the center and low grasses front and center. They thrive in sun and well-drained soil. These grasses hold their shape through the season and some turn a rich golden color in the fall and winter. Tall grasses sway in the wind and make lovely edging plants not to mention a rhythmic swish only heard when the Colorado winds abound.  Let us discuss some specific ornamental grass options in height order:

Tall Grasses

Plume grass (Erianthus ravennae) is grown in zones 4-9. It grows 8′-11′ tall and can spread 3′-4′. This plant, with its tall, thin shafts and fluffy coiffures, exhibits a delicate structure that lends a touch of charm to the harsh winter landscape. Because of its height, a plant such as plume grass can be used as a focal point within a landscape.

Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is a fine choice in zones 5-9 for a tall drought-tolerant ornamental grass, as it reaches as much as 7’ in height, with a spread of 5’-6’. Maiden grass bears coppery tassels as a seed-head in early fall, eventually growing lighter in color and adorning the plant as a “plume.” Do not cut the clump’s stems back until after winter passes, since the graceful stems and puffy plumes of this plant will provide some visual interest on an otherwise barren December-February landscape.

Intermediate Ornamental Grasses

Purple fountain (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) is a tropical ornamental grass. If you live in an area subject to harsh winters, you will need to treat it as an annual. The plant reaches a height of 3-5 feet with a spread of 2-4 feet. It holds purplish flower spikes then seeds. Its spiky foliage is burgundy in color.

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) is a cool season ornamental grass that can be grown in zones 4-8 and is effective for deer resistance. This ornamental grass attains a size of 2′-3′ x 2′-3′ and grows into a mounded form. Grow it in full sun and well-drained soils, if you plan to enjoy the signature blue hues of its foliage to the fullest. The plant also produces spiky, dark flowers with a bluish tint in summer, that turn harvest gold in autumn.

Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is an ornamental grass that grows 24″-36″ high in loose clumps of green foliage. This ornamental grass is cold hardy to zone 5. Even after its leaves have dried and died, it provides visual interest to the winter landscape and is also deer resistant.

Short Ornamental Grasses

For a shorter grass plant, try liriope,  or “lilyturf” (Liriope spicata). Lilyturf ornamental grass can be grown in zones 4-10 and reaches only about 1′ in height. Lilyturf likes water, but also prefers well-drained soil. Select an area with partial shade and soil rich in organic matter for best results. This ornamental grass, too, has a spiky flower, ranging in color from white to lavender. In autumn it bears a dark berry. You will want to contain this plant, however, because it is very invasive and will take over a space fairly quickly.

The unusual blue color of the ornamental grass (blue fescue) is striking.  The popularity of this clumping, drought-tolerant ornamental grass lies in the blue color of its foliage, which will beautifully complement any surrounding plants you may have with silvery foliage, such as lamb’s ears. Alongside cactus and yucca, ornamental grass can create a thorny boundary or border as well as terrific texture and style.  Available in an array of blue/green shades, ornamental grass is sought out as often as scrubs and flowering plants.  Its intensity is reached with the hours spent in the sun. As with maiden grass, cut back foliage in early spring. Divide every few years to rejuvenate. 

Written by Janine Buchal, March 2011

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