Master Gardeners: Growing ornamental grasses at altitude
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Gardeners in Steamboat Springs are amazing. They deal with high altitude, cold temperatures and, most of all, very dry summers. I love to garden, but when the heat of summer arrives, I prefer to have really easy plants because I can’t find the time to tend the garden, and I don’t have automatic sprinklers.
I have found several perennial ornamental grasses that are a great fit for Steamboat. They are very low maintenance, cold hardy, drought tolerant, grow in sun or shade, deer resistant, pest and disease free and mostly tolerant of poor soil.
The area I have placed them only receives approximately 4 hours of sun each day in summer. Hint: more sun, more water yields bigger plants.
I began with the tall, showy feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”). It grows around 4 feet tall with a reddish brown stalk in the spring, the tops feathering out with a beautiful golden wheat color. It provides a lovely backdrop that can hide objects like electric meters.
Next, I found a strawberries and cream ribbon grass, or reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) with white and green stripes and shades of pink throughout. It grows in big bunches approximately 2 feet tall.
I found lots of blue oat grass (also called Blue Avena, Helictotrichon sempervirens) in the area, which is about 1 foot tall, thick and bushy.
One of the staples of grasses grown locally is Elijah blue fescue (Festuca glauca) which has an attractive blue color and grows in low clumps that are good for edges.
I filled in with Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica “Red Baron”) that has a cranberry red color and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) to add color and variety.
These grasses are fast growing, very hardy, and easy to establish. The first year, I mulched to keep down any weeds, but now that they have spread out, there is no room for weeds.
I have added some more color with catmint (Nepeta) because that is another perennial that takes very little care. Some of these grasses are considered invasive in other parts of the country, but here, they stay smaller because of the extreme climate.
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), a sun lover, is another popular grass (designated Colorado’s state grass) and purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum “Rubrum”), an annual, grows around town. Neither of these would work for me.
Ornamental grasses for the Routt County gardener
- Feather reed grass
- Reed canary grass
- Blue oat grass
- Japanese blood grass
- Prairie dropseed
I do minimal maintenance with my ornamental grasses. I only water once every two weeks (if that) and cut them back before the first snow. Some people like to keep them tall until spring, but I find that we have so much snow that it’s easier to cut them back in the fall.
And that’s it. Enjoy the compliments of your visitors as they admire your handiwork.
Susan Scott was a Master Gardener in St. Louis at the Missouri Botanical Garden for several years before moving to Steamboat, where she volunteers with the local gardeners.
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