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Gazing at the grass in winter is a vision in grace

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Jessica Walliser
There are now many varieties of ornamental grasses available.

Some of my favorite plants this time of year are the ornamental grasses. They lend a wonderful texture and grace to the fall and winter landscapes. I love watching them move in the wind and the birds taking shelter in their stems.

Ornamental grasses have come a long way in the past decade. It’s hard to believe that, at one time, there were only a handful of varieties regularly available to gardeners. Now, there are literally hundreds of beautiful varieties on the market that offer a vast array of heights, textures, floral architectures and foliage colors to our gardens. Most have been selected or bred from clump-forming prairie grasses, making them tolerant of poor soils and drought. And, as an added bonus, deer do not typically eat them.

My favorite way to use these grasses is in combination with other perennials and mixed shrubs in a border or foundation planting. I’ve seen some spectacular plantings over the years that consist exclusively of various species of ornamental grasses combined together. Mixing silver, green, blue and variegated varieties is far more interesting to the eye than planting a single row of the same species.

Ornamental grasses are low-maintenance plants in the truest sense of the word. To take care of them, one needs only to cut them back to a few inches above the ground every March and divide the clumps every five or six years. That’s all, except to water them for the first season after planting; until they get established. Other than that, they pretty much take care of themselves.

If you’re looking to add a few to your landscape, you may want to begin to narrow your choices based on height. The tallest ornamental grasses can reach 10 feet or more in height, while the smallest measure under 2 feet. Hardy plume grass (Erianthus ravennae) is among the tallest hardy varieties, reaching up to 12 feet in height. I have one growing on the outside corner of my vegetable garden, and it is spectacular.

Some of my other favorite varieties include the 5-foot-tall, blue-green foliage and delicate flowers of blue switch grass ‘Heavy Metal’; the 4-foot-tall stock-straight nature of feather reed grass ‘Karl Foerster”’ and the deep green, delicately arching blades of maiden grass ‘Gracillimus.’

Medium-stature varieties that reach a height between 2 and 4 feet look great toward the front of the border. Fitting in this category is ‘Hameln’ fountain grass, purple fountain grass ‘Red Head,’ little bluestem and ‘Little White Spider’ maiden grass.

The smallest selections of ornamental grasses include ‘Evergold’ carex, purple moor grass, autumn sedge and ‘Goldstaub’ tufted hair grass.

There are literally dozens and dozens of other ornamental-grass varieties that perform well in our region. I encourage you to head to your local nursery come spring and find a few to add to your garden. Their ease-of-maintenance and beautiful nature will surely win you over.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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