Karl Foerster (feather reed grass) in the landscape

Late summer and fall are two good reasons to plant ornamental grasses.

With sunlight glinting off silvery, golden and pinkish plumes, the garden positively glows. All it takes is a soft breeze to make the scene shimmer. Gorgeous (sigh).

Consider yourself a lazy gardener? Perennial ornamental grasses could be your jam. They’re practically maintenance-free, as well as drought, insect- and disease-resistant. You don’t have to feed them either, because fertilizing causes plants to flop over. Water well at planting time and until plants are established; then grasses do fine without watering unless there’s a severe drought.

Grasses can be used as vertical accents, foundation plantings and mass plantings. Tall varieties can make good screens for blocking views, while shorter varieties work well for edging and groundcovers. Plant clumping grasses or annual grasses like purple fountain grass to eliminate spreading. Shape and texture are other considerations for choosing an ornamental grass.

I don’t cut back my grasses until early spring because I like the winter interest. If an established clump gets skimpy in the middle, wait until new spring growth before dividing the clump.

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Popular tall ornamental grasses include:

  • Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis actuiflora var. stricta), 4 to 6 feet tall, dark green blades with tannish plumes; “Karl Foerster” is a favorite cultivar.
  • Maiden grass (micanthus sinensis), 5 to 7 feet tall, showy cultivars like “Zebrinus” and “Variegata,” with yellow vertical stripes across the blades, along with “Silberfeder” for its plumes and other cultivars suitable to Iowa gardens.
  • Switchgrass (panicum virgatum), 4 to 6 feet tall, native; “Heavy Metal” has metallic blue foliage and tan flowering sprays; other cultivars include “Shenandoah” with burgundy foliage and pink flowering sprays; and “Northwind,” a variety developed in the Midwest, featuring steel-blue stems topped with golden yellow flower panicles that mature to beige.

Shorter grasses include:

  • Dwarf blue fescue (Festuca ovina var. glauca), 12 inches tall or shorter; “Elijah Blue” is probably the most popular cultivar, known for its mounding habit and blue stems.
  • Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), 2 to 3 feet tall, a native grass; “Standing Ovation” has blue foliage that runs reddish in fall; “Blaze,” blades turn red in the fall and fade to pink.

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Arts/Special Sections Editor

Special Sections Editor for the Courier

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