Ornamental grasses can provide garden with carefree, low-maintenance beauty

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— One of the best ways to add striking textural variety to your landscape is with ornamental grass.

Ornamental grasses require little maintenance and are adaptable to growing in poorer soil conditions than many other landscape plantings. The seed heads and foliage add year-round interest to the landscape and can be dried to bring indoors for floral arrangements.

Grasses work as ground covers, specimen plants, as a transitional element and as an effective erosion control. Ornamental grasses add two special elements, sound and movement, to the garden experience, and are virtually pest- free.

Our Rocky Mountain region grasses grow best when planted in the spring and most benefit from mulching and cutting back before new growth begins.

"Quite a few varieties of grasses are available this spring," says Richard Maxwell, a landscape designer for Windemere Landscape and Garden Center. "Some are in a new, three-gallon size which will be an appealing size for many garden designs."

In Steamboat Springs, cool season grasses categorized in hardiness zone 4 work best, but within our pockets of microclimates, we are able to push the limits of what grasses we can grow.

According to Maxwell, Steamboat residents can successfully grow other grasses here as annuals because of their fast growth.

Ornamental grasses lend themselves to many types of landscape design including. According to an Ornamental Grasses fact sheet available through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, ornamental grasses add variety to many types of gardens including water, Japanese, rock, wildlife, craft, xeriscape and decorative containers. Combining a collection of grasses with mixed plantings can offer an appealing variety of form, texture, color and watering requirements.

Gayle Noonan, Yampa River Botanic Park supervisor, suggests "The American Horticultural Society, A - Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants" as a reference. Bud Werner Library has a copy of the book, which Noonan considers to be her bible for gardening information.

Noonan believes that ornamental grasses have been underused, which she says is a shame due to their low maintenance requirements and variety of shapes, textures and colors.

Some common ornamental grasses that grow easily in this climate include blue fescue, which grows in blue to bright green clumps with tan to gold-toned seed heads; blue oat grass, which has blue, pointed leaves and grows in upright, tufted clumps and seed heads that start white and then turn gold, and Indian ricegrass, which grows in tufted clumps and produces flowers. These are just a few of the varieties available.

If you want to see what ornamental grasses look like in a garden setting, the Yampa River Botanic Park has several on exhibit and hopes to include more in the future.

To find the Botanic Park, located off U.S. 40 in Steamboat, look for the brown-and-white identifying signs, turn west on Trafalgar Drive, left on Pamela Lane and proceed to the parking lot. You can also find it off the Core Trail along the Yampa River.

Denise Hitchcock is a Routt County resident and a Master Gardener through the CSU Cooperative Extension Service. Questions and topic suggestions for this column may be submitted directly to the Routt County Extension office, 879-0825 or email your comments to: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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