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Versatile Ornamental Grasses

A garden speaks in many languages. It speaks in color and texture, and in growth and death it speaks of weather and the change in seasons. Although we have four official seasons, it seems there are many more seasons in the garden. What about seasonal drought, spring floods, excessive heat, high winds, or extreme cold? These changes in the garden may be smaller and more unpredictable, but they definitely affect what we are doing in the garden.

Some plants seem to take all the seasons of a garden in stride, predictable or not. One large group of plants that takes whatever Mother Nature dishes out is the ornamental grasses. This group consists of plants of all shapes and sizes, with a huge range of growing habits and environments. I was recently looking up information on a grass in The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses by Rick Darke, and I was amazed at all the different types of grasses available to us today.

Appearing to be the largest group, Miscanthus sinensis has 45 commonly available varieties listed. Miscanthus sinensis ‘gracillimus’ is also commonly called maidenhair grass in our area, and is available in sizes from 2 to 9 feet tall, depending on variety.

Typically, the larger forms are more commonly planted and seen in large yards, parks, and golf courses. Full sun is the preferred environment, and selecting a site with less-than-favorable soils is actually preferred as miscanthus tend to flop all over the place when planted in good rich soil.

The biggest mistake I see when selecting and planting miscanthus is underestimating how big it will grow and not giving them enough space in the garden. If you have a small yard, you may want to try a different type of grass, because even the shorter varieties can grow quite wide over time.

Sharing your miscanthus
Digging and dividing a large clump of miscanthus is a real chore, requiring a very sharp spade and a strong back. In some cases, two or three people are better than one. I have heard stories of gardeners taking an ax to their clump of miscanthus in order to divide it to give a piece to a friend. Occasional digging and dividing of your miscanthus in the spring is a good idea to keep the clump from getting too wide and to keep the plants full and lush. Some varieties, as they mature, may become open and loose in the center, which takes away from the stately, almost fountain-like appearance.

Favorite miscanthus varieties
The most common varieties you see in gardens today are still numerous. One of my favorites is ‘Strictus,’ similar to a variety called ‘Zebrinus,’ or zebra grass, but better. It has horizontally variegated leaves and tends to be more upright and less prone to flopping. It grows a tall 9 feet with flowers.

‘Yaku Jima,’ growing only 5 feet tall with narrow-bladed leaves and a full habit, is ideal when you want a grass to look good all the way to the ground. Some grasses are not full at the bottom and don’t look good in the front of the border, so you have to plant them toward the back and put smaller plants in front to disguise the unsightly bottom third.

‘Variegatus’ is a beautiful variety with vertically variegated leaves. This tall 7-foot grass is commonly seen growing in containers on porches and patios until it gets too big, then it can be moved to the garden. Dark pink to red flowers emerge in mid- to late-September and stand out beautifully against the variegated foliage.

‘Gracillimus’ is one of the oldest varieties still widely used today. This tall grass has delicate, solid green, fine-textured foliage and is the last to bloom. In some cases it doesn’t bloom at all, especially if it gets even a small amount of shade.

‘Morning Light’ is my favorite small miscanthus. It grows only 3 to 4 feet tall and is great for the perennial border or smaller garden. One of the few miscanthus that will tolerate a little shade, it is also great planted in a container. It has fine-textured foliage and I have never seen it flop as it has a nice natural arching habit.

Quickly rising in popularity, ‘Adagio’ is quite handsome and grows to 5 feet. Its flowers have a nice red tinge and it is well-known for its yellow fall color. Most miscanthus have an average rusty-brown fall color.

Tending your miscanthus
The late flowering habit of most miscanthus varieties provides us with an exciting late summer and fall display. Late flowering is also an advantage because there isn’t enough time for the seeds to mature, thereby keeping this beauty from becoming potentially invasive.

Very little maintenance is required to grow most ornamental grasses, including miscanthus. Provide a site with full sun, there’s no need to fertilize, and each year cut it back to the ground around March 1. As spring gets under way each year, ornamental grasses are growing again and are back up to their mature height by early June.

Grasses can provide us with so much in our gardens—an excellent summertime screen, a colorful change for fall, a wintertime sculpture, and a little work in the spring. Before we know it, it’s summer again and our garden is speaking an even newer language to us. Sometimes it seems hard to keep up, but it’s always worth it in the end.

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