Ornamental grasses have been used by gardeners for more than a hundred years. They add beauty, texture and drama to any garden setting. The short ones can anchor rock gardens, the medium height ones add softness around boulders, and the tallest ones are great for background height.
These grasses can be annuals or perennials. The following grasses are perennials. Most are green throughout the summer and turn wonderful shades of red and orange in the fall. Left standing, they will add interest in the winter until the heavy snows cover them.
When purchasing ornamental grasses, it is important to make sure they are a bunch grass. This means they will stay in place and not spread underground. Rhizomatous grasses have roots that wander and would not be welcome in flower beds.
Routt County's climate will successfully support many grasses. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a deep-rooted, drought-tolerant 2- to 3-foot-tall grass. When given just a little more moisture before summer rains, it will be an attractive accent plant that also is great in dried arrangements.
A wonderful low grass is blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca). It forms 6- to 8-inch wide mounds with 12-inch plumes when blooming. It is tolerant of many soils and can be grown in shade or open areas. It is great along driveways or bordering sidewalks, where color and texture are needed. Kept dry, this fescue will turn quite blue.
Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides) is a Routt County native, growing from 1 to 2 feet tall. It appears along county roads, and its distinctive golden fall color makes it easy to pick out on sage hillsides. In dry flower arrangements, it adds an airy look, but if left in the garden, it provides winter seed for birds.
Basin Wild Rye (Elymus cinereus) is a native bunch grass that has wide leaves and can grow 6 to 7 feet tall. It is very drought tolerant, commonly growing on hillsides and roadsides in the county.
June grass (Koeleria macranthra) is a narrow, bladed bunch grass, which thrives on rocky slopes, in woodlands and open forests to 9,000 feet elevation. The bright seed spikes can reach to 2 feet, but the actual bunch grass is shorter.
Ornamental grasses can be easily and inexpensively grown from seed. Planting them in trays in the spring helps keep tact of the germination progress. Transplant them to the garden when the small clumps are a few inches tall. Local nurseries carry many varieties of grasses. These are best planted in the spring so the deep roots have a chance to get established in the warm growing season.
Caring for grasses is simple. Leave them standing during the winter for ornamental interest. In the spring, cut them back to a few inches. After a few years, you will notice the centers are dead. Scratching out the area will allow new sprouts to grow there. You may want to split a large bunch after three or four years to re-invigorate it. Ornamental grasses have a great complementary quality and, when used in a flower garden, can be a stunning backdrop for your flowers.
Marty Fisher is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Call 879-0825 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.