In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
September, 2011
Regional Report

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This miscanthus grass serves as both a backdrop and support for my flowering bee balm.

The Versatility of Ornamental Grasses

When most of us think of grass, we generally think of the kind we mow, weed, fertilize, and water to keep green. Some lawn grasses even invade our flower beds and vegetable garden, adding another garden chore. But the grasses that make a show in my garden are ornamental grasses where they accent perennial and annual flowers.

Four seasons of interest, colorful foliage, interesting blooms, low maintenance, hardiness and longevity, relatively unaffected by diseases or pests, largely deer resistant, speedy growth, deep and fibrous root systems, good in container planting, drought tolerant, swaying in the slightest breeze, and companions to perennials -- who could ask for more in a landscape plant? I particularly like the vertical lines of the tawny grass clumps against the snow in winter.

Match perennials and ornamental grasses with similar cultural requirements, including light exposure, moisture, and soil type. Currently adding interest in my garden is bee balm (Monarda sp.) and maiden grass (Miscanthus sp.). The maiden grass grows up to 8 feet tall and helps to support the bee balm.

I moved clumps of maiden grass this spring to areas that benefited from a vertical accent to screen the outdoor telephone box and contrast with a rose- of-Sharon shrub (Hibiscus syriacus). The newly set clump was quick to start and is already putting on a showy display of blooms. So when you're looking for fast filler, think about these ornamental grasses in your landscape that may be in need of division.

(Please note that in many states in the eastern U.S. one species of miscanthus, Chinese silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis), is considered an invasive plant. Check with your local Extension Service for more information.)

Among the grasses for good fall color is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with reddish to russet fall foliage. In summer, the foliage is blue-green to blue and the fluffy white seed heads make good cut flowers. Little bluestem is hardy to zone 3 and does well in many mountain communities.

Unlike some perennials, grasses are very adaptable and will grow in poorer soils than many other garden plants. They are easy to care for and are drought tolerant once established. A good cutting back in the spring before new growth begins and a handful of organic lawn fertilizer gets them on their way.

The diverse world of ornamental grasses offers us many possibilities in the garden. Did you know that corn and bamboo are grasses? Visit local parks, public gardens, and other home gardens to see how you can incorporate these environmentally friendly plants into your landscape.


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