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Ornamental Grasses Provide Beauty, And Support Wildlife - But What About That Bare Spot?



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What happens during the winter months and in the early days of spring dictates a lot about how plants will grow during the late spring and throughout the summer. Grasses, including ornamental varieties, are no exception, according to Bethel's Hollandia Nurseries Owner Eugene Relick, who said this is a tough season for the decorative grasses.

If you grow ornamental grass or have seen it at the golf course or park, perhaps you've noticed a bare spot that has developed in the center of the plant.

That's caused by too much moisture and/or insufficient soil drainage, said Mr Relick.

"Our winters are so wet and so long that the interior rots out," he adds, noting that freezing and thawing with temperature fluctuations can keep the plant too wet when water gets trapped in the center area. "Mother Nature - she can wreak havoc on us."

Scott Reil, a sales representative for Laurel, N.Y.-based David Rose Perennials, which is one of the suppliers for Benedict's Home & Garden in Monroe, said recent years have been difficult on the plants.

"I've seen a lot of springs come and go. No two have been the same but the last three have been cold and wet," he said.

Mr Reil, who co-hosts the radio show "Garden Talk With Len And Scott" on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 am, which airs Saturdays from noon to 2 pm, said grasses like to be dormant over the winter months, and a warm-for-the season winter followed by a late winter cold snap made things worse this year than in other years.

"That's going to set a lot of things back," Mr Reil said.

The type of dirt in which ornamental grass grows can be a factor. Somewhat sandy soil that drains well is more suitable for many ornamental grasses, although some species do better in humus soil than others, Mr Relick said. Some do better in sun, others in shade. They all do best when winters aren't too wet or have changing temperatures, or when springs aren't chilly, agree Mr Relick and Mr Reil.

"It was a very bad year for grasses," said Mr Relick, adding that while they may be growing slowly, with warmer weather they will begin to take off.

"They are coming along and they're going to be fine," he promises.

Mr Reil notices that some Miscanthus varieties, specifically, develop a bare spot regardless of the weather conditions.

"It's really a function of how the Miscanthus grows," said Mr Reil, adding that it is a Chinese grass that has become popular because of its colorful foliage, but doesn't grow as well as native grasses, such as Panicum varieties, and shows its bare spot more and more as the grass grows and the plant gets larger.

He said that as the grass continues to grow longer and longer, the plant should be dug up and divided. New plantings will eventually develop the same bare spot, but it will take time, Mr Reil says.

More Than Aesthetics

Panicum is one of the more aesthetically appealing ornamental grasses among the natives, Mr Reil adds, but it isn't all about aesthetics with ornamental grasses.

"The wildlife that uses Panicum is huge," adds Mr Reil, noting that various birds, including game birds such as turkeys, and insects, utilize the tall grass for snacking and/or shelter purposes.

Whichever species of ornamental grass gardeners plant, it will not take much to keep it growing.

"It is incredibly easy to maintain," said Mr Reil, adding that the plant just needs to be cut back once a year, and Mr Reil advises that gardeners cut them in the spring.

Bugs and insects that overwinter - such as some bees that bore into stalks to spend the cold months - can have a home until the temperatures warm up after winter when the grass is left standing after the growing season ends. Additionally, birds eat the seeds of the plants.

Mr Relick says cutting back in the spring is important also because the plant is hollow, and cutting in the fall allows for more water entry during the non growing season.

Mr Reil says some non native grasses, including those from the south, grow earlier but may be slowed by cooler temperatures in northern zones.

"The consumer wants the grasses earlier and earlier," said Jane Flader, nursery manager and part of Bendict's ownership, explaining the need to bring in grasses from different climates.

Mr Reil adds that nurseries, including North Creek Nursery in Landenberg, Penn., are drivers in producing native cultivars, or cross breeds which possess characteristics of plants from different zones, enabling gardeners to grow plants similar in look to those zoned for other climates.

When it comes to selecting ornamental grasses, there are many options. They range in size, shape, and color, including various greens and blues, reds, and shades of gold.

There are sedges, which grow in shorter clusters, and Fescue, which Mr Relick describes as a low, mounding plant in different shades of blue. Muhly is a pink variety which grows tall and is fluffy and pink.

One of Mr Relick's favorites is a Miscanthus variety called Sarabande.

"When they plume they're incredible. The flowers are just breathtaking," Mr Relick said.

Natives that are among good choices for their appearance as well what they offer wildlife, include Red October, Prairie Dropseed, and Indian Sorghastrum, Mr Reil says.

As well as adding color and flare to the garden, ornamental grasses can provide an element of sound. Textures vary and grasses make different sounds when they blow in the wind, Mr Relick notes.


Ornamental grass plants can develop bare spots because of too much moisture, according to Hollandia Nurseries Owner Eugene Relick. Scott Reil, a sales representative for Laurel, N.Y.-based David Rose Perennials, has noticed that Miscanthus ornamental grasses tend to develop bare spots. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
Scott Reil and Jane Flader, nursery manager and part of Benedict's ownership, hold examples of ornamental grasses. Mr Reis is holding a Sorghastrum plant, and Ms Flader is hold-ing a Pancium Shenandoah. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
Eugene Relick stands with ornamental grass at Hollandia Nurseries. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
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