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This slide set illustrates the variety of ornamental grasses suitable for Minnesota and discusses the culture and maintenance required for their care.
Ornamental grasses usually are classified first according to their temperature preference: cool-season or warm-season. Ornamental grasses can also be classified according to their growth habit (shown at right). The shortest ornamental grasses usually exhibit a tufted habit of growth, and the tallest are upright arching in form.
As a rule, ornamental grasses are tolerant of soil conditions, although most prefer a well-drained garden loam fairly high in organic matter.
Cool-season ornamental grasses can be planted in the spring or fall; warm-season grasses should be planted only in the spring.
Routine maintenance procedures include cutting back ornamental grasses in late winter or early spring to remove old, unsightly growth and to allow new growth to develop without being shaded by the old. Blue fescue is a cool-season, clump-forming grass native to Europe with attractive silvery-blue foliage. Indian grass is a warm-season, clump-forming grass and is one of North America's most attractive native grasses. Maiden grass is one of the most popular ornamental grasses because of its narrow, graceful leaves that move gently in even the slightest of breezes in the garden. Plume grass is a warm-season, clump-forming grass sometimes referred to as hardy pampas grass.
Porcupine grass is a warm-season, clump-forming grass selected from a species native to Japan. Cool-season grasses (many of which are evergreen) prefer temperatures ranging from 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Most ornamental grasses form clumps, rendering them noninvasive and suitable for use as specimen plants or for massing. A second classification of ornamental grass according to their growth habit is spreading, or running. Most ornamental grasses are full-sun plants and should receive at least six to eight hours of direct sun each day for best growth. Fall-planted grasses benefit from a light mulch applied after several hard freezes have occurred during their first winter. Although attractive, true pampas grass (Cortaderia sellioana) is not reliably hardy past zone 8 and is not a wise choice for the Midwest.

Hardy only to zone 8, it is treated as an annual grass in the Midwest but worth replanting each year because of its colorful leaves and flowers. These grasses creep or spread thanks to aboveground structures called stolons or below-ground structures called rhizomes. Japanese blood grass has an upright and somewhat arching habit of growth to a mature height of between 12 and 18 inches. Plume grass is native to Europe and reaches a height of up to 14 feet when in bloom with an upright, arching growth habit.
Switch grass produces fine-textured, delicate panicles about 24 inches long in mid- to late summer that are purplish upon emergence and mature to a beige color. Once established, ornamental grasses should not be heavily fed; application of one-half to one pound per 100 square feet of a complete, general-purpose garden fertilizer is sufficient. Spacing ornamental grasses is a matter of personal preference and intended function in the garden. Feather reed grass bears flowers in early summer in the form of greenish panicles that mature to a straw or buff color.
Add to this their ability (in many cases) to tolerate hot, dry weather, and it is no wonder that ornamental grasses enjoy great popularity in the gardening world today.
On the other hand, warm-season grasses thrive at temperatures in the 80 to 95 degree F range. In early fall, giant Chinese silver grass bears reddish-brown panicles held about 24 inches above its foliage.
It flowers in late summer and produces a 12-inch copper-colored panicle similar to that of maiden grass; flowers dry to a buff color upon maturity and remain attractive well into the fall. Ribbon grass rapidly spreads to form a loose, somewhat open ground cover between 18 and 24 inches in height.
In midsummer silver banner grass produces 8- to 10-inch silvery panicles that are held well above the foliage and are effective into the fall.
Spreading ornamental grasses can be contained in mixed plantings by cutting the bottom out of a 5- or 7-gallon nursery container, sinking the container into the ground until its top is level with the surface of the soil and planting the grass in the center of the container.
Grasses should be watered regularly during their first season of growth to encourage the establishment of a deep, vigorous root system. All ornamental grasses flower (most producing panicles, racemes or spikes), giving them additional appeal. Japanese blood grass spreads fairly rapidly but is not considered to be overly aggressive in the garden.

Flowers appear in late summer and remain attractive throughout the winter, giving this grass three seasons of effect. Purple fountain grass prefers a full-sun exposure in moisture-retentive yet well-drained soil. Silver banner grass thrives in full sun in moist-to-wet soil and spreads rapidly by rhizomes to form a dense, upright mass of foliage 48 to 60 inches in height.
Warm-season grasses tolerate hot weather and remain attractive well into the fall, when many of them have added interest because of their attractive flowers. Once established, ornamental grasses usually require supplemental irrigation only during periods of hot, dry weather. Although it appreciates a good garden loam, it is one of the few ornamental grasses that will tolerate heavy soils or moist, poorly drained areas. Indian grass prefers full sun and tolerates a variety of soils, although it prefers a deep, moist garden loam. Ribbon grass makes an effective, colorful ground cover because of its aggressive habit of growth. Because of its affinity for moisture, silver banner grass is excellent for massing along water features and for soil stabilization along stream banks. Warm-season grasses die back to the ground after the first hard freeze of the fall but retain ornamental value in a dried state well into the winter. Additionally, late applications of fertilizer to warm-season grasses tend to reduce their winter hardiness. It is considered by many to be one of the best medium-sized ornamental grasses and can be used as a specimen or planted in mass. It is one of the more shade tolerant ornamental grasses but will produce taller plants in shadier conditions.
Plume grass prefers a full-sun exposure and well-drained soil; heavy soils are to be avoided.
It can be incorporated as a background specimen in a planting of ornamental grasses or taller perennials, or it can be used to form an effective hedge or screen.
Additionally, most ornamental grasses are remarkably pest-free and usually do not require application of pesticides.

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