In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
May, 2013
Regional Report

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Carousel little bluestem offers lots of seasonal interest in return for very little maintenance. Photo: Chicagoland Grows

Ornamental Grasses in the Low Maintenace Garden

Gardeners are using more and more ornamental grasses in the landscape, not only for their year-round beauty and interest, but also because of their versatility, durability, and low maintenance. The subtle colors of both foliage and flower heads span the spectrum from green to silver to red to purple. There are even quite a number of variegated foliage choices to liven up the garden. Grasses add an extra dimension to the landscape with their movement and sound as they sway and rustle in the late summer breeze. Plus, their association with our prairie heritage makes them a favorite in Midwestern gardens.

The Lure of Grass
Grasses range in height from just a few inches to more than ten feet tall and with forms that range from low, tuft-like mounds to arching, airy shrubs or upright, towering giants. Ornamental grass plants grow quickly but only begin blooming by the end of summer with their dramatic, graceful inflorescences. In autumn, the flowers turn first to subtle oranges and reds and then finally to tawny beige for the winter. Many remain standing through winter, continuing to decorate the landscape. The dried stalks and flower heads catch snow and offer shelter for birds and other animals.

Growing Grasses
Happily, ornamental grasses are very easy to grow and need little attention. They thrive in a wide variety of soil and light situations, are drought tolerant, and rarely have problems with pests or diseases. Most grasses grow best in full sun and well-drained soil. They're quite tolerant of low fertility and can be planted in ordinary garden soil with no need for amendments other than an annual top dressing of compost. You can mulch grasses with organic matter such as shredded bark to reduce moisture loss, prevent heaving from the freeze-thaw cycle in winter, and provide some nutrients to the grass.

Sun-loving grasses can be grown in part shade but will never reach their full potential and usually need to be staked or ringed to keep them from flopping over. But with proper plant selection, you can find grasses that are adapted to part-shade conditions, wet sites, pond or stream banks, slopes, and sandy soils. There's truly a grass for any location.

Little Bluestem Needs Little Maintenance
A great ornamental grass choice for our region is 'Carousel' little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium 'Carousel)', introduced by the Chicagoland Grows® Plant Introduction Program. Forming a clump reaching 30 inches tall and wide at maturity, the summer foliage of this upright native grass is blue-green with streaks of pink. In fall its foliage changes to a stunning mix of copper, pink, beige, and mahogany hues. Planted in full sun and well-drained soil, 'Carousel' requires very little maintenance once it's established, beyond a yearly cutting back. Adapted to zones 3-9 and drought tolerant, it needs no supplemental water or fertilizer to thrive.

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