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Seeing ornamental grasses in place paint a pretty picture

By Eunice Steimke
Master Gardener
What if you could see how new plants in your landscape will look in one year or three years next to the front walk or on the side of the patio?
Software can provide a virtual look, but there may be another way, especially if you are considering ornamental grasses.
I recently took the opportunity to visit Grass Creek Nursery on N.C. 150 between Salisbury and Mooresville. Grass Creek’s primary focus is ornamental grasses.
I had never thought much about ornamental grasses until Bill Oakley, owner of Grass Creek, spoke to the Master Gardener volunteers in May. Listening to him and looking at his many pictures, I realized a nearly limitless variety.
As I strolled around Grass Creek with Bill and his wife Nancy, I saw an array of sizes, shapes, colors and textures that were very pleasing to the eye. At Grass Creek, the Oakleys have an assortment of grasses planted in various locations ó front yard, back yard/patio, around a pond, near the road, at various stages of maturity, stand alone and among other landscaping. Seeing them in place is a great help in making choices.
Ornamental grass has become a catch-all term for all grass-like plants and may include sedges, reeds, rushes and others. The choices are numerous and plants can be tall, short, graceful, wispy, erect, flowering, variegated, banded, spotted or solid colors of greens, blues or reds.
Shorter grasses make good ground cover (blue fescue, blue gray sedge); taller ones, provide privacy (feather reed grass, bamboo). “Graceful” is descriptive of ornamental grasses wherever they appear.
Warm season grasses generally become dormant in frost; and cool season grasses start to grow in early spring and may remain semi-evergreen over winter. The growth of any grass is temperature dependent ó beginning when the soil reaches appropriate temperature.
Nearly every ornamental grass has a flower spike ó known as inflorescence. The inflorescence varies in size and presentation and can provide garden color in every season. An example is Karley Rose, a variety of fountain grass, with its lovely smoky rose flower.
Indoors, dried cuttings can add to contemporary and country décor. Many grasses have vibrant foliage ó like the yellow bands on zebra grass or the deep red coloring of Japanese blood grass.
Clearly, there is beauty to be found in ornamental grasses. But perhaps the most desirable characteristic is their ease of planting and relatively low maintenance. Most are best planted in the spring or fall, but in our area, year round planting can occur.
They need well-drained soil and most require at least 4-5 hours of sun a day. A few grasses are shade and/or wet area tolerant (feather reed, switchgrass, yellow foxtail, river oats).
Soils require relatively low amounts of fertilizer. Low nitrogen levels tend to prevent flopping over. Ornamental grasses are heat and drought tolerant. Good watering during their first season is recommended to help in establishing the root system. Some extra watering may be necessary in extreme drought situations. They are highly resistant to insects and disease. They require little pruning, and it is best done in spring. Plant division may also be done in spring.
The more common ornamental grasses in landscapes are clump-type plants. These grow in a well-defined clump without tendency to spread into surrounding areas. Rhizome forming grasses are more difficult to control.
Most landscapes will be enhanced by well-chosen, strategically placed ornamental grasses. Take a look for yourself. The only downside will be choosing from the many options.
Grass Creek is open on Saturday and Monday and other days by appointment. Bill and Nancy can be reached at 704-664-9631.
Eunice Steimke is a Master Gardener volunteer with the Cooperative Extension.

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