Not grass but grasses!!! Many kinds, sizes, colors, blooms and textures. All sizes from 2-3 inches to 10-11 feet.  Grasses in the last few years have found their way into gardens of all sizes. There are annuals, perennials, and grass like plants such as sedges, rushes, and bamboos.  They can be used for backgrounds, as a centerpiece in a bed, as part of a container garden and the small ones make nice edging.  Most of them are thought of as lower water users, so a dry spot will suit them well after they have gotten a good start.  There are even a few that like wet spots.  Most of them are sun lovers but I have a few that prefer shade.

          One of the tallest grasses I have had in the yard is zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’). I put a small innocent looking plant some distance from a pine years ago.  The pine limbs grew longer, the zebra grass spread slowly about 5 feet across and grew taller and soon the two met.  ‘Zebrinus’ starts out green and it is usually mid-summer before it gets its stripes.  The stems tend to arch over (fountain shape) as they grow taller so the last few years it has been in a cage to keep it upright.  In the fall it has fluffy heads way up there. Porcupine grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’) is related and has the horizontal stripes but has a more upright shape, rather than the fountain shape of ‘Zebrinus’.

          ‘Japanese Blood Grass’ (Imperata) is red, especially in the fall and grows only about 18 inches high. In some states it has reverted to a green form (very invasive) and has been declared a weed.  The red one spreads very slowly for me and I use it for an edging along one of my paths, backed by bright yellow coreopsis. In spring the leaves start out green with a red tip.  You might find it called ‘Red Baron’ (Imperata ‘Red Baron’) or Cranberry Grass. I have never seen it flower so to grow more you need to divide your clumps.  It likes damp, somewhat sandy soils and does not like hot and dry, or heavy clay soils.  Books list it as hardiness zones 6-9 but mine has been here for over five years without protection. Lincoln, Hastings, and Grand Island are cold hardiness zone 5.

          ‘Fountain Grass’ (Pennisetum alopecuroides) grows about 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide for me and it looks like its name. The stems come up and then flows over very gently.  A clump former, it is very dense and the seed heads vary from creamy white to tan.  It does seed very happily so you will have youngsters around to hoe off.  After a few years the clump dies out in the center, but by this time I have planted a new baby close by and dug up the mother plants.  Stems will be upright all winter but I usually cut mine to the ground in the fall.  I like the clumps between the sidewalk and the front fence.  Blooms go well in fresh or dried arrangements. If you want the winter decoration just leave it alone until spring and remove the stems clear to the ground before the plant starts to green up.

          ‘Big Bluestem’ (Schizachyrium scoparium) grows against one side of the dog pen.  In a good rain year it will be 7 feet tall.  There are about 200 bluestem species all over the world.  If you ever go out to Nine Mile Prairie west of Lincoln, you can lose people from sight. Another Bluestem I have ‘Broomsedge Bluestem’ (Andropogon gerardii) is also called ‘Turkey Foot’ from the form of the seed head. It is actually too big a plant to have very many but it makes a sturdy background for a hibiscus.  One has big flattish leaves and the other long slender sheaf’s. If you leave them standing during winter you may see sparrows or goldfinches swinging near the top and enjoying the winter sun.

          There are grasses that like light shade. My favorite is ‘Japanese Forest Grass’ (Hakonechloa) sometimes call ‘Hakone Grass’.  It is listed for cold hardiness zones 7-9 but I have had 3 clumps of it along a path under the big cottonwood tree for three years.  Perhaps if we have a very bad winter sometime, I will lose it.  It only grows about 2 feet tall in soft foliage like bamboo.  It tends to droop in one direction for me (from south to north). I have it planted back from a path. Some say this grass is difficult to establish in hot summer areas as it is native to the mountains of Japan. My variety is ‘Aureola’ or the golden variegated Hakonechloa Grass. It has yellow foliage with green streaks. This variety will burn in full sun and likes damp soil at all times. It does its best in a cool summer climate. To the north are Wind Anemones that give some shade and slow down the wind.  In between the clumps are 3 inch high blue Campanula. The green form of the grass is Hakonechloa macra and is not as sensitive to the sun.

          Out by the mailbox I have a spot I call my “gray garden” with pussy toes, lambs ears and Artemesia.  There I have ‘Mexican Feather Grass’, a soft fuzzy stipa with slender stems that sway in the slightest wind.  Sometimes called ‘Needle Grass’, Stipa tenuissima is unable to take wet feet so the parking area is just right for it.  It has been described as “a flowing mane of blond hair”. Again, it is listed for cold hardiness zone 7 but it has been there several years.  Perhaps the snow thrown over it by street sweepers has protected it. 

          The new deep purple millet (Pennesetum glaucum) usually listed as ‘Purple Majesty’ comes up green and develops its color after exposure to the sun.  It is an annual that can be seeded outside and still have a long enough season to grow the 12 to 14 inch heads of deep color that birds will love to eat.  It will grow 3 to 4 feed high and does well in large pots. It likes heat and so far has not had any diseases.  The last two years I have had a pot on either side of my front door. George last year grew a row in his vegetable garden area for a friend who used them in dried flower arrangements.

          When I first started to write this column about grasses, I also started a list of those in my yard. It is up to 21 species so far so there will have to be a Part II next time. 

Copyright Mar. 26, 2005