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Perennial bunchgrasses liven up home and garden in the fall

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? ... I do not know what it is any more than he.

— Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass,” 1848

After this first stanza, Whitman goes on to explore the existential possibilities of grass. He ultimately settles on the explanation that grass represents the continuation of life: “The smallest sprouts show there is really no death.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about grass lately. Jerry and I finished planting a cover crop that includes annual rye grass, and I’ve been sitting on the porch, as the expression goes, watching the grass grow. Far from being boring, however, the emerging shoots are rapidly turning the bare earth an exciting chartreuse green — such an uplifting color at this time of year!

Ornamental grasses, too, are splendid in fall because they have feathery flowers, called plumes, which rise up from clumps of arching blades like sentinels of the fall season. There are many shades of ornamental grasses, some of which turn bronze or orange-gold in autumn for a beautiful garden display. Added bonuses: Grasses provide interesting architecture and movement to gardens, they’re good for the soil, and they produce lots of foraging material for wildlife.

My answer to “What is the grass?” is certainly not as profound as Whitman’s, but it’s a lot more succinct: Grassy is sassy!

In fact, perennial ornamental grasses aren’t just lovely outdoors; their cut foliage and plumes also create long-lasting arrangements for fall décor. Susie Penwell, co-owner of Penny and Lulu Studio Florist in Medford, told me pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) plumes are particularly trendy for home decorations and weddings.

Pampas grass is a native of South America, but grows successfully in our area because it adapts well to different habitats and soils. In fact, it grows so well in some regions of California and Washington that it’s listed as a noxious weed in those states, as well as others (but not in Oregon, although a relative, C. jubata, is listed as a noxious weed here).

Pampas grass can become invasive by producing about one millions seeds over its lifetime, as well as spreading by rhizomatous roots. C. selloana also needs a lot of growing space in order to reach its mature size of up to 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Other downsides of growing pampas grass: The blade edges are razor sharp and can easily cut unprotected hands; unmanaged plants can become a fire hazard, the tussocks make inviting nesting sites for uninvited critters, and as a non-native plant, pampas grass does not help sustain native biodiversity.

On the other hand, pampas grass is deer resistant and drought tolerant. A dwarf cultivar, C. selloana ‘Pumila’, grows only 4-6 feet tall and does not produce seeds. If you have the space, pampas grass makes a striking specimen in a plant community with other grasses, or it creates an attractive border screen if planted in a small group.

Count on a pageantry of plumes every late summer and fall for many years and, once established, minimal maintenance — just cut the clump back to a few inches above ground level in late winter and freshen up the soil with compost. Use electric pruners or large lopping shears, and be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves. Wrapping duct tape around the base of the stalks, called culms, before pruning saves clean-up time and effort.

By the way, the fluffy plumes of pampas grass are produced only by female plants; hairs on the flower’s ovary fluff up the plumes.

Of course, pampas grass is only one of many perennial ornamental grasses that will liven up fall gardens and homes. Joan Thorndike, owner of Le Mera Gardens in Talent, told me one of her favorite grasses for fall arrangements is northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). This North American native produces pretty green seedheads in summer that turn bronze around this time of year. They are one of the best ornamental grasses for gardens that receive partial shade.

Non-native ornamental grasses in my gardens include: feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuriodes and P. setaceum ‘Purpureum’, a tender perennial with purple foliage and flowers), maiden grasses (Miscanthus sinensis) and blue oat grass (Helictotrychon sempervirens).

Suzie Savoie, co-founder of Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds, suggests native perennial grasses that help restore the land and feed and protect native wildlife: Roemer’s fescue (Festuca roemeri), California fescue (Festuca californica) and tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa). The fescues are more drought-tolerant, whereas tufted hairgrass likes wet areas.

Be sure to leave some of the seedheads of these and other grasses for overwintering wildlife. In late winter, prune back bunchgrasses to 3-4 inches above the ground (don’t prune phormium or liriope, though) and add compost to the soil. Some finely textured grasses benefit from using a brush to remove dead foliage.

In the 19th century, Walt Whitman came to the understanding in his poetry that grasses do a lot for us, and he vowed, “Tenderly will I use you curling grass.” In the 21st century, let’s add, “Tenderly will I use and care for you curling grass” as part of our gardening stewardship.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

Some hairgrasses turn beautiful fall colors.
Feather reed grasses are hardy perennials that require little maintenance.