Gardening

To Stand Tall, Grasses Need Sun and Wind

20171209A Panicum virgarum Northiwind grasstalk.files.wordpress.com
Swtichgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’) standing tall in the winter. Source: grasstalk.files.wordpress.com

Ornamental grasses like maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.), feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora), fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) have become popular for the winter interest they add to our gardens. Even though they lose their summer greenery and turn various shades of beige and brown in the autumn, still they stand upright over the winter, waving their silvery plumes in the air, for a striking effect, especially against a background of snow.

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Floppy grass unable to stand up to winter wind and snow. Source: www.obsessiveneuroticgardener.com

This is great when it works … but it doesn’t always. Sometimes they are flattened by the first winter storm and spend the rest of the season lying on the ground. Of course, you could stick a piece of rebar into the center of the clump and use garden twine to pull them back up … but the effect is rarely as nice.

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Expose grasses to burning  sun and strong winds throughout the season and they’ll stand tall. Source: lipartpig.com, fantendo.wikia.com & favata26.rssing.com 

To avoid this completely, remember that these grasses are usually native to spots fully exposed to sun and wind: prairies, meadows, steppes, etc. If you plant them in a partially shady spot or one protected from the wind, they develop thinner, less robust stems subject to flopping. Grow the same grass out in the open, though, and their stems will be thick and strong. This comes from being exposed to burning sun and from being constantly pushed back and forth by the wind starting early in the season. The plant’s reaction to this “punishment” is to add extra lignin to its stems, resulting in a tougher, windproof grass.

So if your grasses flop in the winter, try moving them to a more exposed site next spring and next’s year’s show will be spectacular!20171208A Panicum virgarum Northiwind grasstalk.files.wordpress.com

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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