After summer’s floral extravaganza has ended and leaves have fallen from the trees, ornamental grasses become the superstars of the winter landscape. Not only are they beautiful, they add new dimensions to their uniqueness:
• They dance in the wind. Depending on the wind’s intensity, they can dance slow and gentle or fast and swirling. And some whistle in the wind.
• Grasses can glisten when backlit by a setting sun.
• On frosty winter mornings, they are unquestionably the most beautiful plants in the landscape.
• And, their plumes remain throughout winter, creating bird sanctuaries.
Fortunately, for eager gardeners, container-grown ornamental grasses can be planted now. Not only are they tough, hardy perennials, they are exceptionally drought-tolerant of our Arkansas summers. And they are easy to grow and care for.
If you decide to get a head start on spring by planting now, please follow directions on the label — not only light requirements, but also maximum size. Then give them plenty of room to grow because many of them can get really, really large.
Ornamental grasses need loose, well-drained weed-free soil and should be planted at the same depth they are growing in the container with the crown set slightly above the soil line. Mulch and water well until the ground freezes. Then wait for them to amaze you come spring.
They come in many shapes, colors, variations and sizes. Some grow in clumps, others spread. One professor I know has more then 70 cultivars growing in her gardens. Most prefer sunny, dry locations, although a few flourish in shade or in moist soil.
Grasses also add visual impact to containers — large and small, alone or as part of the thriller-spiller-filler design concept.
Most grasses grow tall. Heights range from five to 12 feet. These include feather reed grass, pampas grass, fountain grass, switch grass, maiden grass, favenna grass, ribbon grass, pink muhly and zebra grass.
Shorter cultivars are Japanese forest grass and Mexican feather grass that reach from 6-12 inches.
There are also liriope (also called monkey grass), mondo and mini-mondo grasses that are widely used in gardens as groundcovers or borders. Liriope must be cut back in early spring before new growth begins, but the mondos do not need pruning.
Why are gardeners so fascinated with ornamental grasses?
Well, it could be their soft feathery plumes that dance in the breeze … or their graceful arching shapes … or colorful changes from gray green to purple and red in fall … or the narrow arching foliage and silver plumes, bold foliage and/or delicate graceful feather-like leaves. Or, it could be all of the above.
While most grasses are hardy here, a few are not — or “iffy” at best. These include purple fountain grass which is extremely popular for its fountain-like form and burgundy-red foliage; purple millet with its burgundy foliage and stems that resemble fuzzy cattails; and fiber optic grass, an evergreen with a mop-like tuft of fine green stems that only reaches six inches tall and is a favorite for containers.
So enjoy your ornamental grasses until late winter when they need to be sheered to make way for their resurrection in the spring. This is especially important if grasses have been in the garden for several years.
Writer and garden guru Felder Rushing shares this pruning tip for ornamental grasses:
“Approach grasses from an angle with sharp shears or a fast-running string trimmer, going around and around like eating an ice cream cone, gradually getting down to the main clump.”
Over time, sister Rosemary and I have had experience with many of these grasses, including zebra, fountain, feather, ribbon, maiden, muhly and optic. Some have thrived; some have died.
The list of popular grasses that grow in our Zone 7 is long. One of Rosemary’s favorites is Adagio — one of the miscanthus grasses. A great example can be seen now at Arvest Bank across from Central Mall.
Except for early March when they are cut back, ornamental grasses provide beauty in the landscape during all four seasons of the year.
Winter solstice arrives in two weeks — at 10:28 a.m. Dec. 21 — marking the shortest day of the year. Winter solstice walks will be held at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7 p.m., at the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, located seven miles outside of Spiro. In addition to admission, there is a $5 fee for the walk. The Spiro Mounds are one of the most important American Indian sites in the nation and the only prehistoric American Indian archaeological site in Oklahoma open to the public.
Next week, the topic will be: the Christmas wreath offers much more than a sense of seasonal joy.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.