Friday, November 15, 2019

Native and Ornamental Grasses at Altitude

We all get caught up balancing colors and placements of blooming plants in our gardens during the growing season.  Now, as we move into the winter months, consider places in our gardens that could use new enhancements to provide greater garden interest.  For example, when snows come and go and your landscape changes with each storm, how much attention do you pay to your overall gardenscape?

Think about the barren spots, the newly formed little gullies from water run-off, or interesting branches that may fall from an old tree. These can contribute to potential shifts in garden plans. Grasses can enhance our beds, even in warm seasonal containers, while most help save on watering.  

Grasses provide more depth of enjoyment by defining spaces with color, form and texture, from barren seed heads to interesting blades. Do you have a space that could use a height element, or a dash of color with unique spikes?  Do you have native grass clumps that can be moved to a more suitable location, thus fulfilling your desired goals?  Research a grass and its related cultivars carefully for seasons, soil types and growth characteristics (i.e. bunch or sod-forming), as these needs and the physical appearances may affect the results you are after.
June Grass

Most importantly, we should acknowledge that beyond native grasses, there are ornamental grasses that can tolerate our altitude and multiple growing conditions with a dedicated, patient and persistent hand. 

Seeding can be a challenge.  For larger areas of soil and landscape regeneration, broadcast seeding may be appropriate, but for a smaller, more specific area, seedlings you grow or some from the local nursery may be more successful.  Many of these are also great in garden beds as well as clump cultivars for summer container plantings with colorful annuals or perennials added for composition. 

Some of these native grasses include:
  • Indian Rice Grass (Orzopsis hymenoides), a delicate cool-season grass addition to any rock garden, the birds will thank you for the seed spikes.
  • Mountain brome (Bromus marginatus) may be more common and familiar to us all but it is valuable for any restorative garden area that needs a filler.
  • Blue grama grass (Bouteloua Gracilis), Colorado’s state grass, is cold hardy, but plant it in a sunny, warm spot in finely textured soil. 
  • Arizona fescue (Festuca Arizonica) is a bunch grass, good forage for wildlife and livestock.  
  • June Grass (Koeleria family) has unique lustrous seed heads, growing in sandy soils
  • Mountain Muhly (Muhlenbergia montana) is a bunch grass, medium in height.  Did you know there is a mountain bike trail in Evergreen named after this grass?
  • Western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) can develop into a thick sod.  It also can withstand varying weather conditions from monsoon to drought.
  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scopariums) is a plains grass, but in a sunny area with protection, it may grow well and provide color as the seasons advance.  

Routt County Master Gardeners add these colorful ornamental grasses:
  • Feather Reed grass (Culamagrostis acutiflora)
  • Reed Canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea)
  • Oat grass (Helictotrichon semperverirens)
  • Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica)
  • Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Purple Ornamental Millet
Millet seed heads
I recently discovered Purple Ornamental Millet (Pennisetum glaucum), a warm-season annual grass. This family is broad, as it is one of the oldest grains for food and grazing, originating in Africa and adjacent continental areas.  It has an extensive root system that makes it drought tolerant. It grows best in the upper 80s to mid-90s. Cooler, wet conditions will inhibit colors and stem growth. The deepest stem and blade colors come from plenty of direct sun.  

Make early fertilizer applications and consistent watering a priority.  Purple ornamental millet will grow several stems, all producing spikes (inflorescence) that produce the seed. A clump or mass planting in beds or containers is ideal. It may overwinter in small clumps if moved inside.

Your reward for researching, planting and caring for these grasses may be a gentle breeze off the back deck next summer, while you watch with pleasure the soft waves of grasses moving across the garden.

By Jan Boone, Master Gardener in Evergreen, CO

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