Green Thumb – Spotlight on Ornamental Grasses

If you are an ornamental grass, you need to practice the fine art of patience. While summer gardens are full of blooming flowers, ornamental grasses remain in the background, quietly and discreetly, growing and waiting their turn.

In late August and early September, the role reversal begins. Summer flowering plants are winding down. The time has come for the ornamental grasses to step into the spotlight.

Incorporating ornamental grass into your home landscape design is not difficult, but it does require advanced planning. Grasses grow in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Their sizes range from 6 inches to 12 feet and over. You need to understand the ultimate size of your plant before you plant it in your garden.

Small grasses can be used effectively as front of the border plants and as groundcovers. Japanese Blood Grass displays a brilliant, red fall color but is only marginally hardy in our area so give it a sheltered location and winter protection. From early summer and through to the fall months, Blue-Eyed-Grass carries blue flowers with yellow centers. Blue Fescue offers soft blue-green foliage that can perform well as a single specimen or as a compliment to other fall blooming plants.

In the medium-size grass category, there are three grasses frequently seen in our area gardens. Karl Forester Feather Reedgrass is easy to grow and admired for its upright and controlled growth pattern. It carries its attractive seedheads through the fall and winter. Prairie Dropseed Grass, a native grass, has a delicate appearance but is extremely hardy and features a golden, yellow fall color. Panicum Switchgrass offers a polite, upright form and is a popular accent addition to fall flower displays.

Here come the big guys. Giant Miscanthus and Pampas Grass successfully grow in Illinois but be sure that you have enough room to support these very large grasses. Giant Miscanthus can grow to a dramatic 12 feet and will need to be controlled through frequent division. Pampas Grass is an annual grass but still remains popular as it displays huge white or pink plumes equally valued for use in the landscape and for dried flower arrangements.

Ornamental grasses are low maintenance plants that are capable of surviving a variety of growing conditions from prairie sun to part shade. The best planting time for grasses is spring. Established grasses should be cut back hard in the spring and divided every three to four years.

Ornamental grasses provide us with graceful movement through all the different seasons. You can enjoy their beauty in the fall as they light up when the afternoon sun shines on them. In the winter, from the inside comfort of your home, look out on the frosted seedheads and spikes of grass. Birds and small animals will appreciate the shelter provided by these grasses.

By planting some of these grasses, we can return, at least in part, to a time in our history when Illinois was covered with prairie grasses.

Barb Lindholm – University of Illinois Extension, DeKalb County Master Gardener