Ornamental Grasses – More out there than you know

If you had asked me several years ago about my feelings relating to ornamental grasses, I would have said blah. A lot of people share this feeling. We tend to only know the overused Pampas Grass or the invasive Maidengrass. A few years ago I heard a presentation by The Perennial Diva, Stephanie Cohen, that completely turned my thoughts around. I will share some grasses you may want to try in your own garden.
The dangling seed pods of Northern Sea Oats are a special feature to this ornamental grass. Switchgrass Panicum virgatum is a grass that many of us are familiar with. We have some growing on the farm that is hayed twice a year. In another spot that we do not hay, we see signs that deer find it makes a nice bed. There are several cultivars out there that are very showy. ‘Shenandoah’ has been around for some time so is readily available. Its leaves have a reddish color. In “Herbaceous Perennial Plants” Allan Armitage says that the color is not showy. He recommends ‘Prairie Fire’ as an improved cultivar with a deeper red leaf color. ‘Hot Rod’ is a newer cultivar. It emerges with blue leaves which turn redder and redder as summer goes on. The flowers are also red and turn into lovely seed heads that are good winter food for the birds. If red isn’t your color, try ‘Heavy Metal’ which was developed by Kurt Bluemel in Baldwin, Maryland. This cultivar is metallic blue that turns amber in the fall. Kurt Bluemel is an interesting plantsman. He was born in Maffersdorf in a German area known as the Sudetenland in then Czechoslovakia. The Nazis annexed this area before World War II. His family was expelled along with 3 million ethnic Germans at the end of the war. He emigrated to Maryland in 1960 and started his own ornamental grass business. He worked with Wolfgang Oehme for a while and together they designed landscapes with great swaths of color. Both felt that the American way of landscaping at the time was boring – lots of turf and a ”necklace” of green around the foundation. Oehme moved on to start his own highly successful landscape business but Bluemel continued to supply plants, mainly grasses for his designs. In 1995, the Walt Disney Company asked Bluemel to design a savannah for the Animal Kingdom. He opened a nursery in Florida to replenish what the animals ate. A favorite of mine is Northern Sea Oats or River Oats Chasmanthium latifolium. There is a beautiful stand of this grass growing at the Staunton River boat ramp off of US 360. Many people turn up their noses at this plant because it can spread. But the dangling seedpods are so beautiful and useful in floral arrangements. The seed heads shatter in August so if you want to cut down on spread, cut these off before they fly away. I have to admit that I have not seen River Oats growing in any other bed besides the original one. Maybe the birds go after the seeds before they have a chance to settle in. Muhly grass Muhlenbergia capillaris is a stunner. My husband and I often visit Panama City Beach in November and there are grasses used along the highway that have bright pink blooms that are just spectacular. I am not positive but I feel that it is pink muhly grass. Like most grasses, muhly is drought tolerant. At a recent presentation by Dr. Holly Scoggins, formerly a horticulture professor at Virginia tech, she was asked what are good companions to muhly. Her answer was that it doesn’t need a companion, it is fabulous all on its own. Grasses also have the advantage of being low maintenance. Generally all that is required is a haircut around President’s Day (third Monday in February). Most are drought tolerant and deer don’t seem to eat them. All of the above grasses are native to Virginia. Both switchgrass and Northern Sea Oats can take occasional flooding so are good beside creeks and ponds. While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings are closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu. If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and plan to use ornamental grasses in your landscape.