Ornamental grasses low maintenance

By Tom Dominguez

A ballet of light and movement is what you’ll get with ornamental grasses. Tough, graceful, shimmery and beautiful are possible ways to describe one of the best-kept secrets of the gardening world. Now is an excellent time to plant some of these beautiful, no-mow grasses.
When the topic of ornamental grasses come up, pampas grass is the most common, however, there is a wider variety. While pampas looks great in some situations, it can be a little too large, showy and coarse for home landscapes.

Depending on the species, ornamental grasses can range from a towering 12 feet to a petite eight inches. Colors vary from bright green, blue, red, purple and tan and lots of white or yellow variegated leaves. There is also a great deal of variety in the showy & attractive seed heads of the various grasses.

Ornamental grasses require little if any soil preparation as long as they have good drainage. Grasses thrive in soils amended with organic matter, but gardeners should avoid overly amended and altered soils that promote lush growth. Lush growth will cause plants to flop easily in rain or when heads are heavy with seed. Limit water and fertilizer to avoid this problem. Mulch is definitely a good practice and will improve plant growth. Most ornamental grasses don’t need much in the way of fertilizer, so limit it to compost, cottonseed meal or a little nitrogen in the spring.

The most important preparation before planting ornamental grasses is getting rid of Bermuda grass. It’s hard to get a grass out of a grass!

Using glyphosate herbicide on actively growing Bermuda is a good approach. There are some organic approaches, but they require more patience and diligence than most gardeners have. Early October is a good time to plant ornamental grasses, especially cool season grasses like blue fescue, Mexican feather grass and deer grass.

Grasses should be left standing in the garden through the winter to provide color, texture and shimmering sights and sounds. But when February arrives, get ready to cut them almost to the ground. This is a substitute for what happens in nature such as grazing and fire. Most grasses can be cut within a few inches of the ground. Some cool season grasses shouldn’t be cut back unless they are damaged from cold or drought.

Grasses can be used in a variety of ways. Some of the large showy grasses can be used as a single accent plant or they can be massed in drifts. Different grasses can be mixed, and they look great mixed with flowering plants, shrubs and trees. A solid planting of blue fescue or Mexican feather grass can be used like a ground cover.

You can use them in containers, and they are a natural with water features, boulders and wildlife gardens.
The muhly or the Muhlenbergia grass group is quite spectacular and durable. Lindhiemer’s muhly, Muhlenbergia lindhiemeri, is a dependable grass with heat and drought tolerance and almost year-round good looks.

Lindhiemer’s needs plenty of water and fertilizer. Leaves are narrow, fine textured and blue green in color. In September, this fine plant begins to bloom with intricately beautiful flower heads that develop into equally attractive seed heads. The plant will retain its good looks during the winter months, but the leaves will turn a tan color.

Plant in a full sun and in well drained moist soil. Once Lindheimer’s is established, it can get by on just an occasional good watering.
Deer muhly, M. rigens, is a cool-season, clumping grass that offers unusual beauty and a very tough nature. It has bright green, slender leaves. Even without much summer water, this cool-season plant will hold
its color in the heat. The flower spikes are vertical and not as showy as other muhly grasse. Deer muhly needs moist, well-drained soil in full to part sun. Moist soils are best, but it will tolerate dry, rocky, alkaline and salty soil.

One of the most attractive muhly grasses on the market is the Gulf Coast muhly. Gulf Coast muhly has a smaller stature, and the leaves are very fine, upright and stiff. The plant does not make an impact during the growing season. But come October, the show begins. Gulf Coast produces a glowing mass of a hazy purple seed heads. Watch where you put Gulf coast it may not be very cold tolerant.

There are also many fountain grasses to choose from. Feather top fountain grass is a showoff most of the summer and fall. Unlike other fountain grasses, this one has good longevity and drought resistance.

Be aware of grasses in the pasture and roadsides. They make very attractive ornamentals such as sideoats grama, blue grama, and hairy grama. These are very drought and cold tolerant and make for good accents in the home landscape and flower garden.

Tom Dominguez is an agent with the Quay County Etension, NMSU, Extension Service. He can be reached by emailing tdomingu@nmsu.edu or by calling 461-0562.