Ornamental grasses can add privacy

I made a terrible mistake.

I removed all the railings from the front porch of our 100-year old Victorian farmhouse.

Pinterest promised me an open feel. Instead, like a bad pixie cut, my porch looks bald and dowdy.

The long-term — and expensive — solution is to replace the railings, which will happen as soon as the hubby’s honey-do list clears up a bit. But in the meantime, what can this gung-ho gardener do?

The answer is ornamental grasses.

In fact, ornamental grasses are the answer to a lot of problems: a privacy screen that grows to hide the neighbors’ ugly fence that grows in just one season; four-season interest that offers a unique play of light, shadow and sound when everything has died back; and inexpensive landscaping that can withstand heat, wind, terrible soils, drought and even black thumbs.

There are hundreds of varieties of ornamental grasses, ranging from less than 1 foot to over 10 feet tall, and they come in a variety of colors and seedheads to match surrounding plants, porches or views.

When choosing a grass, consider growing height, seasonal interest and what it needs for light, soil, water and snow.

Care

After first planting the grasses, water deeply until the roots have become established.

Once established, grasses need little care, perhaps cutting them back once they’ve turned brown in the late winter or early spring.

Or, leave the blades tall for winter interest. The plumes look lovely topped with snow and are a food source for winter birds.

Ornamental grasses are tough things and don’t need regular nutrition. If you choose a fertilizer, avoid excessive nitrogen, which could make the grass leaves flop. Instead, choose something balanced and organic, like a composted cow manure.

A few years after you’ve planted the grass, you may notice that it is not growing as vigorously as it once did. Divide it to promote growth.

Cautions

There are a few caveats when choosing an ornamental grass.

Keep in mind the maximum height and width of the grass to make sure it fits into your design plans. Choosing a Giant Miscanthus grass, for example, that tops out at 10 feet tall and with an 8-foot spread would make a terrible fit for a foundational planting.

Hardiness zone is another consideration. Will this grass stand up to our freezing winters and wet springs?

Also, some grasses create seeds that are very invasive. Translation: you will be digging out this grass variety from your lawn and garden for the next 10 years. Choose a variety with sterile seeds or that grows in a clump.

Overall, talk with a trusted local nursery or reach out to us at the Penn State Master Gardeners of Lycoming County to find an ornamental grass variety that will work best for you.

Have a question for the Master Gardeners? Email it to region@sungazette.com.

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