In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
April, 2005
Regional Report

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1746

Maiden grass has spectacular summer blossoms and magnificent fall color.

For the Love of Ornamental Grasses

This is the time of the season when ornamental grasses should have their winter foliage cut off in preparation for new spring growth. I finished this task the other day, and as always, it made me renew my admiration for these terrific plants. I have several (too many, some would say) varieties, all of which satisfy different needs in the landscape.

The best feature of almost all ornamental grasses is they take little care. All you need to do is cut them back in early spring and divide them when they start to die out in the middle. That's it! They seldom need fertilizing, will tolerate drought conditions, and give us rich green to blue foliage throughout the summer. Then they turn shades of russet, maroon, and tawny beige in fall and winter. Most grasses are prairie plants, so give them reasonable soil and full sun to duplicate prairie conditions.

Here's a survey of some of the most popular grasses. Keep in mind that there are many, many more varieties. Once you start looking around the garden center, you will be amazed at the range of colors and textures available.

Chinese fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) grows in a slowly expanding clump about 3 feet tall and wide. The bright green leaves are narrow and arch gracefully, making the plant look very much like a fountain of water. Yellow to purple bottlebrush flowers form in midsummer, standing high above the foliage. The leaves turn lovely golden brown in winter. I have a dwarf variety of this fountain grass called 'Hameln' that only grows about 18 inches tall and wide. It is a fine-textured edging plant -- especially attractive when planted with purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans.

Eulalia grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is also quite popular, and there are many, many cultivars available. These grasses also form clumps and usually have foliage that arches almost to the ground. They send up puffy seed heads in late summer that will remain through the winter.

Purple eulalia grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens'), also called flame grass, is about 3 feet tall with reddish purple foliage in full sun. It turns brilliant red-orange in the fall and will tolerate some shade. 'Autumn Light' eulalia grass grows about 5 feet tall with large leaves and huge, dark bronze flower heads. I have two clumps that make a dramatic statement in a bed at the entrance to my driveway.

One of the most popular Miscanthus grasses is maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus'). This lovely, delicately textured plant has very thin leaves with a stripe of white down the center. The plant gets about 3 feet tall, and the foliage arches elegantly to the ground. Flowers form in midsummer, extending delicately above the foliage and opening into creamy cloud-like puffs.

Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'), also a eulalia grass, is a much more robust variety with interesting horizontal yellow bands along the leaves. Zebra grass can grow up to 8 feet tall, and then silvery flower plumes will extend another 2 feet above the foliage.

The last cultivar of eulalia grass that I have in my yard is called 'Goliath'. This enormous grass grows to 10 feet tall and is graced with pink flowers and yellow fall color. Needless to say, it is planted at the back of my landscape because of its size.


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