Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental Grasses

Part of Ep. 202 Winter Garden Projects

Join John Mather, greenhouse manager for the UW Madison Department of Horticulture as he explains how to grow ornamental grasses, the ultimate low maintenance plant.

Premiere date: Nov 30, 1993

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
Beautiful isn't it? A mature stand of ornamental grasses like these will provide color and interest all winter long. I'm at Allan Centennial Gardens with John Mather, greenhouse manager for the UW-Madison Department of Horticulture. John, grasses like these are kind of a new old passion, aren't they.

John:
That's exactly right, Shelley. I think most people when they think of grasses think of lawns, but actually grasses have been around since the dawn of civilization providing us with food and fiber and ornamental grasses reached the height of the popularity in the Victorian times and they've been making a comeback in this country in the last 20 or 30 years.

Shelley:
Well, not only are they pretty to look at, they provide a nice screen. We're on a busy street corner. I can hear the traffic but I can't see it. How long did it take to get them this tall?

John:
This planting's about three years old.

Shelley:
So this is a good choice for a quick screen.

John:
Oh, definitely. These plants here will reach their mature heighths in about two years and the Porcupine Grass that we're looking at gets about 6-8 feet tall. We normally start these from plants and the clumps just keep getting bigger over time.

Shelley:
So do we have to worry about lots of seedlings from these seedheads?

John:
No, for the most part these plants are sterile so you won't get the little plants growing up all over the place.

Shelley:
Look at the leaves. The stripes on that are just beautiful. They'll stay all winter long? I assume they just kind of fade out.

John:
That's exactly right. Why don't we go look at some other grasses?

Shelley:
OK.

John:
Alright.

Shelley:
This has got to be the tallest one in the garden, John. This is incredible.

John:
Isn't it amazing. This is Ravenna Grass and it's 12-15 feet tall and it makes a beautiful vertical accent in a garden. It's a wonderful specimen plant and two or three of them will fill in an area just wonderfully. As with most of the grasses we're talking about today, too, they're all native to moist areas and so they're pretty moisture tolerant. This one in particular though is much more tolerant of moisture and has actually been used along stream banks and in roadside ditches.

Shelley:
So, it will actually fill in a problem area for us.

John:
Exactly, in fact, it will fill in the area. Unlike the other grasses that we're talking about today, the seeds of this grass will sprout and little plants will grow up and the area will get filled in.

Shelley:
So the clumps will get bigger and then we'll have little babies coming along, too.

John:
That's exactly right.

Shelley:
OK, what about the one behind you? I've been wanting to touch this. Look at the way the seed heads just glow. This is beautiful.

John:
It's lovely. It's interestingly enough, Autumn Light and as you can see, it's another tall one, 6-8 feet tall. And these seed heads come out in late September, early October. The fall colors are usually yellow and when light strikes this, it just almost glows.

Shelley:
So it'd be a real nice one to plant like on a hillside or in front of the setting sun?

John:
Exactly, in fact I think grasses are shown up to their best, particularly for winter interests, when they're reflected in water or on a hill where we can see the movement against the sky.

Shelley:
Well now these grasses are all warm season grasses. That means they don't even start growing until the temperatures reach about 70.

John:
Right, the grasses we're talking about today are warm season grasses and they come up in late spring.

Shelley:
Now this stays here all winter?

John:
Actually yes, you definitely want to keep this here all winter long, but in the spring when you're just hankering to get out in the garden in late February or early March, you get in here and you cut out all the old foliage.

Shelley:
Cut it back to the ground?

John:
Cut it back to about an inch above the ground and this will give the new shoots an opportunity to grow up. At the same time, when we cut these down, there are all these spaces around the clumps that we've planted in the fall with spring flowering bulbs.

Shelley:
Oh, perfect, so then you've got the bulbs coming up to hide the empty clumps where the grass was.

John:
Exactly, and then in their turn, the grasses come up and hide the old ugly foliages as the tulips or daffodils die out

Shelley:
So a great example of companion planting. Alright, what about this grass? It's a little shorter. It looks like it might be a little more approriate for a smaller yard.

John:
Yeah, the grasses we've been talking about here before are pretty big. This is another miscanthus. It's called flame grass and as you can see, it gets four or five feet tall. We still get a little bit of a hint as to why it's called flame grass. There's a little purple tint here and in the fall, and even actually in early September, this'll get a bright orange color, reddish orange and when the light strikes this, it's actually ablaze.

Shelley:
Well this is still beautiful right now.

John:
Isn't it beautiful?

Shelley:
Now will these-- are these hearty even up in northern Wisconsin?

John:
Well, as we mentioned earlier, grasses have been coming back to this country in the last 20-30 years and we don't have a lot of experience with their heartiness, but places like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum have grown these for a number of years and as long as we site these in situations where there's good drainage, we're going to get them through the winter.

Shelley:
Well, and I've also been advised to mulch them the first couple years with sawdust or something--

John:
It's an excellent idea. Cut them back in the fall the first couple of years. Put a little mulch over them and they'll make it through the winter a little bit better. After that, they almost mulch themselves.

Shelley:
They sure do. What about diseases and pests?

John:
These are the ultimate low maintenance plant. Disease-free, pest-free, very little need to fertilize them and best of all, when these plants fill in, they crowd out the weeds.

Shelley:
Not my favorite chore. That's perfect. Thanks, John. And remember, grasses like these can provide winter interest in two ways, outdoors in your garden or bring a few inside for a dried arrangement.

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