Ornamental grasses shine in fall and winter

  • fescue with roots isolated on white baxkground

Fall and winter are when ornamental grasses come into their own. They don’t have to compete with withering purple petunias or a half dozen other annuals past their prime. The spotlight is finally on them, and they should have our full attention.

Ornamental grasses provide winter beauty, especially if covered with frost or with the sun streaming through the foliage and seed heads. They add movement and sound and provide a significant vertical presence to a flat winter landscape. The grasses offer protection for overwintering insect egg masses, larvae and adult insects. It’s a perfect place to call home for beneficial insects. The eggs can hatch and their larvae can grow into their adult selves.

Birds use standing grasses as sources for seeds and for winter protection. After a decline over the past two years, a native bush in my front yard has met its demise. The bush has been a safe haven for quail even in winter with its bare low branches. It is presently an eyesore and needs to come out. Now I’m debating if I should plant the same variety of bush, choose something different that has early spring blooms for bees or plant an ornamental grass.

I am leaning toward a native bush with early season bee attraction that will fill the limited space. According to the articles I have been reading, from a design point, more than one stand of grass should be used combined with flowering perennials and shrubs to create the dramatic effect the ornamental grasses should command. I am not dismissing an ornamental grass planting, but more thought needs to go into the project to get the most visual impact of the planting.

Grasses can grow in poorer soils better than many other garden plants and require little effort to maintain.

Grasses generally grow best in three to five hours of direct sun. In shade, they may not bloom, become weak with a tendency to fall over and may not develop peak fall color.

Grasses fall into two categories: cool season and warm season. Cool-season grasses are not cut back. In the spring these grasses should be combed out vigorously, removing the brown and dead foliage to allow for the new spring growth. Wear gloves, as the foliage may be sharp enough to injure the hands. Some of the most popular cool-season grasses include fescues, blue oat grass and tufted hair grass. If they are not watered during drought, they tend to go dormant, resulting in brown foliage.

Warm-season grasses are cut back to 4 to 6 inches in the spring to remove the brown foliage and allow space for new spring growth. These grasses tend to remain looking good even when temperatures are high and drought conditions may prevail. Some of the most popular warm-season grasses in Central Oregon are little bluestem, Karl Foerster feather reed grass, fountain grass, maiden hair grass and switch grass.

Many gardeners object to the growth habit of some of the ornamental grasses. Sometimes our limited growing season can have its advantages. In Central Oregon, some seeds will not ripen and reseed in our short growing season. There are also sterile seed varieties that have been developed.

My flower containers on the front steps are finished for the season. I am going to do some experimenting and plant an ornamental grass, maybe along with some dried materials to make it eye-catching. It’s a good excuse to visit the local garden centers.

— Reporter: douville@bendbroadband.com

Learn more

For more information, read “Water-wise Gardening in Central Oregon” by Amy Jo Detweiler, available at the OSU Extension Office, Redmond, or online at https://bit.ly/2uD2kQW

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