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Gardening with Deb: Grace your garden with ornamental grasses

Deb Babcock
Babcock_Deb

Often when we think about bare spots in the garden, we consider shrubs, perennials or annual flowers to add color, texture, aroma or interest to an area. Another plant to consider in your Steamboat Springs-area garden is one of the ornamental grasses that grow well here. Grasses are practically pest-free and easy to grow perennials.

These plants can handle poor soil and less than ideal weather conditions. Plus, they are striking in a garden filled with other types of vegetation. If you allow the ornamental grasses to remain throughout the winter, they add interest, texture and a bit of color to your garden year round. And when planted on a slope, they offer wonderful erosion control.

Ornamental grasses bring two additional gifts to your garden — movement and sound as our afternoon winds blow through. They add a peacefulness to the garden and provide different sounds depending upon whether the grasses are fresh and green early in the season, or dry and straw-like later.



When looking for ornamental grasses, you should know that many garden centers and catalogues lump together true grasses (Gramineae) with grass-like plants including sedges (Cyperacea) and rushes (Juncaceae). We’ll concentrate on true grasses in this article.

The ornamental grasses you choose for your garden should be selected to fit the site in terms of soil quality, watering (or not) as well as height and spread of the grass, its shape, color and when seed heads (or inflorescence) appear.

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Consider the following grasses that are known to flourish in our USDA Zone 3-4 environment:

Blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca) is a great groundcover grass growing to a height of 6 to 18 inches. It requires minimal water once established.

Blue Oat Grass (Helictrotrichon sempervirens) is a dense clump of grass with blue pointed leaves that turn golden in the fall. This grass grows to about a foot tall and needs little water.

Indian Ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides) is another xeric green grass that’ll grow up to two feet tall with narrow, green blades. Its inflorescence makes a beautiful addition to fresh and dried flower arrangements.

Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’) is one of my favorites with its showy green foliage throughout the summer and straw-colored feathery spikes that remain through the winter.

Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia ssp) prefers a slightly shaded area and rewards you with tufted foliage that changes from green to yellow to dark purple as the season progresses.

Other grasses that grow well in our high country gardens include Basin Wildrye (Leymus cinereus), Prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), Variegated bulbous oat grass (Arrbenatherum elatius), Blue lyme grass (Leymus arenarius ‘Glaucus’), Maiden hair grass (Miscanthus sinensus) and Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum purpureum).

While most need very little (if any supplemental) water to survive here, all need water when initially transplanted in order to get established in your garden.

If you’re reworking a portion of your garden or looking for something to fill in a bare spot, consider gracing your garden with beautiful ornamental grasses.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Questions? Call 970-879-0825 or email: csumggardeners@co.routt.co.us


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