Home & Garden

Ornamental grasses see revival in Mid-Columbia lawns

You can use a lot of words to describe ornamental grasses -- tall and plumed; short and mounded; tufted, arching and upright; variegated, striped and solid colored.

But there's one descriptive word that fits them all -- carefree.

"Once established they need very little care. In the spring cut them back, that's it," said Cindy Mason of Kennewick.

"Grasses like bad soil, poor watering and can stand up to our winds and even bad gardening techniques. They're the perfect garden plant," she said.

Mason should know, she's a longtime Washington State University Extension Master Gardener. She also helps care for the landscaping and golf courses at both the Tri-City Country Club and Canyon Lakes in Kennewick.

The main difference between ornamental and lawn or turf grasses is their structure. Ornamentals are more upright and meant to be enjoyed as a single plant, even when used in a mass planting. Turf grasses are meant to be a ground cover and grow horizontally along the ground, Mason said.

There are two basic types of ornamental grass, the clumpers which stay with their root ball and those that put out rhizomes -- runners -- like the invasive Bermuda grass we all fight in our lawns and gardens.

"That doesn't mean you can't plant and enjoy one of these invasive grasses," Mason said. "If you want a rhizome type grass that misbehaves like bamboo just put it in a pot and sink the pot into the ground."

"That way you get all the joy of the plant without the headache," she said.

Before buying any ornamental grass do your homework.

Read up on them, check their size at maturity, some like pampas grass, rival any pro basketball player for height.

Check out their preferred living accommodations, too.

"Once you get them in the ground you don't want to have to babysit the rascal," she said.

Most ornamental grasses prefer life on the dry side, though sedges can be more water-tolerant.

The libraries have several good books on ornamentals and there are good sites on the Internet too. A couple are: University of Illinois Extension, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu /grasses/default.cfm; Colorado State University Extension, www.ext.colostate.edu/ pubs/garden/07232.html; and Ohio State University Extension, http://ohioline.osu.edu/ hyg-fact/1000/1238.html.

There's also a variety of ornamental grasses planted at the Master Gardener Foundation of Benton and Franklin Counties Demonstration Garden, 1620 S. Union St., Kennewick. The grasses are used throughout the many gardens in the Demonstration Garden but one area is devoted to just grasses.

"Most are several years old so you'll be able to get a good idea of their mature size," Mason said. Most, though not all, are labeled.

Ornamental grasses are great for filling in bare spots, holding hillsides, as a hedge to hide something and for adding texture to landscaping.

Some, like Blue fescue, are fine bladed and lacy, others, like miscanthus, are broomy looking.

A few, Mason said, pointing out a clump of Mexican Feather Grass, produce interesting seed heads.

"It has very fine seed heads which tangle and mat together making a seed ball that looks like a long-haired cat on a bad hair day," she said.

To grow additional plants just pull the seed head apart and scatter the seeds. Or rip off pieces and plant them.

Many ornamentals reseed themselves. To keep them in check simply cut or pull the seed heads off before they mature, Mason said.

Once established ornamental grasses need minimal care -- some water, a haircut in the spring and dividing every three to five years or longer.

You'll know a plant needs dividing when the center dies out. Do it any time the plant isn't actively growing, early spring or late fall. Just dig it up and pull or cut it into four or five pieces and replant, Mason said.

Avoid feeding them too much fertilizer, especially if it's high in nitrogen which promotes lots of growth. They'll fall over because they get too heavy, she said.

* Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com.

Grow your very best

Learn how to choose, plant and care for trees and shrubs at a Fall Garden Fest on Oct. 4.

After a lunch break there will be a variety of 30-minute workshops on fall gardening topics.

The event, organized by the Washington State University Extension Master Gardeners in Benton and Franklin counties, will be at the Kennewick Grange Hall and the Master Gardener Foundation of Benton and Franklin Counties Demonstration Garden,1620 S. Union St., Kennewick.

Details of the Fall Garden Fest still are being finalized. The line up of workshops, hours and costs will be published in a future edition of the Herald's Home & Garden section.