Enjoy ornamental grasses through the winter months

Don't mow low in late fall

Grass, grass everywhere—and I’m not talking about the turf-grass type. Fall is definitely the time of year when ornamental grasses shine.

What poet within us wouldn’t be charmed by the gentle way their seed heads sway in the breeze and dance on the long stalks they’ve been growing all season? Grasses really add movement to your garden—unless you chop them down prematurely.

I recently had the opportunity to consider the importance ornamental grasses hold in our gardens, as I cut down literally hundreds of Calamagrostis x acutiflora “Karl Foerster”, commonly known as Feather Reed grass, at a client’s property.

So often clients want their grasses razed to the ground before the onset of winter as they perceive the standing grasses to be “messy” rather than graceful.

Often, land care providers such as landscapers are all too happy to oblige, as that means one less task facing them in the spring.

Instead of this perverse desire to tidy in the fall, why not take into consideration all the benefits of leaving ornamental grasses over the winter?

From an aesthetic standpoint, ornamental grasses offer important structural interest in the winter garden, looking beautiful alongside the seed heads of perennials which often should also be left standing to enjoy for another season.

As gardeners, let’s remember to switch up the traditional garden tasks and focus our energy at this time of year on planting perennials to begin getting established over fall and winter or planting bulbs for spring colour and forego our cleanup until spring.

Many grasses, such as Miscanthus ssp, Panicum ssp, and Saccharum ravennae, are strong enough to remain upright through the snow, providing vertical interest until being cut down in the spring.

One of the ornamental grasses recently planted at the Okanagan Xeriscape Association demonstration garden by our assistant garden manager Brad Parks is Andropogon “Red October.” I can’t get enough of it.

Parks says he sourced it online and I am going to try to do the same, so we can offer it for purchase at our spring plant sale. It is an absolute stunner.

From an ecological standpoint, there also are many reasons to leave your ornamental grasses standing over the winter. They provide needed habitat for birds and a myriad of other wildlife, as well as for beneficial insects to overwinter. The seed heads of ornamental grasses also provide food for birds, who have to forage widely during the colder months, just to survive.

They also provide great erosion prevention and slope stability, especially where wildfire has run through the previous season.

The time to shear your ornamental grasses is when you begin to see new growth at the base sometime in spring. Then, don’t toss out the cut grass. Instead, find a spot in your yard where it will be out of your way, but will provide valuable habitat for beneficial insects.

Remember too the fallen leaves from deciduous trees should also be left where they fall, rather than being neatly raked up and composted elsewhere in the fall. Those rotting leaves are like gold to a gardener as they provide habitat for insects and wildlife while they decompose over winter. They also suppress weed growth and protect the roots of perennials over winter and what’s left can be gently dug into the soil come spring. So, leave the leaves.

The Okanagan Xeriscape Association is grateful for the ongoing financial support of the Okanagan Basin Water Board and is proud to be collaborating with them on their Make Water Work campaign.

Sigrie Kendrick is a master gardener and executive-director of the non-profit Okanagan Xeriscape Association and can be reached at 778-363-8360 or by email at [email protected].

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

I inherited my passion for gardening from my Australian grandfather, a renowned rose breeder in New South Wales. My interest in water conservation started early after a childhood spent growing up in the desert of Saudi Arabia, when a day of rain was cause for a national holiday.

After meeting Gwen Steele, co-founder of the OXA through the master gardener program, I became passionate about promoting xeriscape. I joined the OXA board as a director in 2015 and became executive director in 2019.

When not promoting the principles of xeriscape and gardening for clients throughout the valley, I can be found on a rural property outside of Kelowna where I harvest thousands of litres of rainwater with which to water my own xeriscape gardens.

Connect with me at [email protected].

Visit the website at: www.okanaganxeriscape.org


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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