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Ornamental grasses shine mid-winter

Karma Larsen
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum

“In the beginning the meadow was a disappointment. So it was a lucky day for me when I discovered that I could put the lawn mower blade on the highest setting and cut a path through the tall grass that, at a stroke, transformed that sorry patch of grass and weeds into something altogether different – into a meadow I don’t know exactly what it is, but that sharp, clean edge changes everything; it makes a place where there wasn’t one before.” Michael Pollan, “Second Nature”

If you see a good-sized patch of grasses as a weedy mess, Pollan’s suggestion of cutting a pathway through them may permanently change your mind about grasses in the landscape. Pollan goes on to explain the transformation, to turn the mown pathway into a reassuring metaphor: “In a path is the beginning of narrative, that sure and welcoming sign of human presence.”

Whether you love them or not, ornamental grasses stand on their own this time of year. Even the heaviest snow can’t permanently bend them to the ground and the low angle of winter light enhances their beauty and appeal. In the minimalist landscape of Nebraska winters, grasses shine.

Few other plants offer such a huge variety of textures, forms, sizes and cultural adaptations as grasses. Most ornamental grasses grow to mature size in just one season, and there’s a grass to fit any landscape, even the narrowest strip of soil between walkways and buildings.

For sustainability, it’s hard to beat them. They’re drought-tolerant once established; largely unaffected by pests or diseases; work well in containers; provide habitat and food for birds and other wildlife; their deep root systems stabilize banks and discourage gophers and other “tunnellers”; they can grow in almost any type of soil; and they actually improve rather than harm soil quality and fertility. They require little maintenance other than an early spring cutback – at a time of year when most gardeners are eager to get outside.

Here are some wonderful grasses for the home landscape, with shorter grasses listed first (* denotes native):

– Blue grama*, Bouteloua gracilis

– Chinese pennisetum, Pennisetum alopecuroides (‘Hamlin’, ‘Karley Rose’)

– Little bluestem*, Schizachrium scoparium (‘The Blues’, ‘Blue Heaven’, ‘Blaze’)

– Prairie dropseed*, Sporobolus heterolepis

– Sedge, Carex, grass-like plants that can thrive in shade and wet soils (Carex grayi, C. muskingumensis)

– Sideoats grama*, Bouteloua curtipendula

– Tufted hairgrass, Deschampsia caespitosa

Taller grasses, larger than 3 feet tall:

– Big bluestem*, Andropogon gerardii (‘Pawnee’, ‘Silver Sunrise’)

– Giant sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii

– Graybeard grass, Spodiopogon sibirica

– Indiangrass*, Sorghastrum nutans

– Maidenhair, Miscanthus

– Ravennae Grass, Saccharum ravennae

– Reed grass, feather and Korean reed grass, Calamagrostis brachytricha and x acutiflora

– Sand lovegrass, Eragrostis trichodes

– Switchgrass*, Panicum virgatum (‘Dallas Blues’, ‘Northwind’, ‘Shenandoah’)


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