Ornamental Grasses Shine if Fall

October 21, 2012 lawanda Newspaper Columns

Ornamental grasses can play a part in the summer garden, filling space and providing vertical interest, but fall is when they come into their own. Many of them develop deep rust, golden, or brown colors and their seed heads can be lacy, plumy or stiff. When the trees have lost their leaves, the annuals have been hit by frost and the perennials have been cut back for winter, ornamental grasses put on their show.
Grasses are easy to care for once established. They can be grown from seed or purchased in pots for a quicker effect. Plant in spring after the last frost. Small grasses are placed close together, but larger grasses require 3-5 feet between plants. Water well after planting and until they become established.
Most grasses prefer full sun, but some tolerate shade. Once established, they require little maintenance. Mulch around the base of the plants with straw or leaves to get them through their first winter; after that they should do fine. Let the grasses stand through the winter to provide landscape interest, then cut them back to a few inches in late winter before new growth begins. A hedge trimmer can be used if there are just a few plants; a string trimmer works for a large number. Clumps should be divided every few years in early spring to keep them looking their best.
Here are a few native grasses that do well in Wisconsin.
• Big bluestem, has 4-8 ft. blue-green stems topped with flower clusters that look like turkey feet. In fall stems glow a bronzy reddish brown. It is suitable for prairie gardens, for massing in naturalistic settings, as specimen plants, or as background in a border.
• Side-oats grama gets its name from the way the purplish oat-like flowers hang downward from the side of its arching stalks. The summer foliage is gray-green and it changes to a warm straw color in fall. Growing just 2-3 feet tall, side-oats grama makes a good specimen plant in a rock garden, and is also good in a prairie setting. Birds eat the seeds in winter.
• Little bluestem is often used in commercial landscapes. The clumps of light green to blue foliage grow to 2-3 feet tall. The wiry stems are topped with silvery-white seedheads. The foliage is especially pretty in fall when it turns dark red. Little bluestem’s small size makes it adaptable to many places in the landscape. It will work in mixed borders, along walkways, in foundation plantings and in prairie gardens. Flowerheads are used in dried arrangements.
• Pennsylvania sedge grows in tufts and is one of the first green plants you’ll see in spring. Only 8-10 inches tall, clumps can be planted in small groupings in woodland gardens or shady rock gardens.
• Indian grass grows 5-7 feet tall. It blooms in late summer with bronzy yellow flowers followed by golden brown silky seed tassels. Fall stem color is golden yellow to dark orange to purple. Finches and sparrows enjoy the seeds all winter.


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