By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Fescues are cool season grasses which grow primarily in the northern part of the United States up into Canada. Green fescue grass (Festuca viridula) is native to high altitude grasslands and meadows. What is green fescue? In its native region, the plant is an important forage species for cattle and sheep. The plant is also called Mountain Bunchgrass or Greenleaf fescue.
Some botanists and agriculture experts feel green fescue grass is the most important species to the high altitude regions of northern Oregon. It also ranges into Washington and British Columbia. This is a true grass in the family Poaceae, which is a long lived perennial. It grows in thick bunches alongside other native grasses and flowering wildflowers. One of the most important bits of green fescue information is its cold tolerance. This is an alpine plant very adapted to cold seasons.
Greenleaf fescue ornamental grass is a clumping plant. It grows 1 to 3 feet in height and has mostly basal, erect, smooth leaf blades. These are deeply green and may be curled or infolded. The plants active growing period is in spring and summer. It goes semi-dormant in winter and loses its leaves, which regrow the next spring.
The grass is not commercially available as a landscape specimen but it has vigorous seed production and growing green fescue is fairly easy if you get hold of some seed heads. These appear in late spring and are erect, short and open and bluish purple when young. Seed heads mature to tan when ripe.
Green fescue grass is often grown for its ability to stabilize soil. The plant produces coarse, broad roots that are effective in grabbing soil and minimizing erosion. The plant holds protein better than other native grasses in the region, making it an important food source for cattle and especially sheep. It is also heavily browsed by wild animals.
June through August is the primary leaf formation period. Once cool weather arrives, the foliage is not persistent and it has no value to animals. Greenleaf fescue ornamental grass is attractive in the landscape only for a short period and is better used in fields as fill plant material and cattle feed.
While seed is not commonly available, a few wildlife and agricultural retailers do carry it. The plant requires moisture to establish and cold seed stratification. Soil should be well draining, of moderate fertility and have a pH between 6.0 and 7.3. Your region should have a minimum of 90 frost free days to make use of this grass.
Plant seeds in fall before freezing temperatures arrive and let nature provide the stratification or place seed in the freezer for 90 days before planting out in the early spring. Provide even moisture once you see the seedlings. The seeds can be sown fairly close together for a turf effect.
This is not a true ornamental but can provide a meadowland enhancement when paired with lupines, Penstemon, and other native fescues.
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*= Native to Maryland
*Big bluestem - Andropogon gerardii
One of the tallest native grasses in Maryland, from 5-8 ft. tall, this grass has a wide native range across the U.S. Leaves green to blue-green in summer, turning orange to copper red in fall with an inflorescence that looks similar to a turkey’s foot. Adaptable to a variety of soils best used as habitat or conservation restoration as they are quite tall for the home landscape.
Blue fescue - Festuca glauca
A short, clump-forming grass with attractive blue color. The leaf blade has a very fine texture. Great to use as a groundcover or along walkways. Drought tolerant.
Common cultivars: ‘Elijah Blue’, ‘Blue Whiskers’, ‘Beyond Blue’
Foerster’s Feather Reed Grass - Calamogrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
A widely used ornamental grass with tall (3-5 ft.), upright habit. Showy golden seed head with feathery appearance. Will grow in a variety of soil conditions and types.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) 'Shenandoah'. Photo: Mikaela Boley
*+Switchgrass - Panicum virgatum
A large native grass reaching 3-6 ft. tall (depending on cultivar). Easily grown in most soils has wide tolerance for dry, moist, sandy or clay soils. Also has some salt tolerance, which makes it useful for the coastal plain. Good for erosion control, but does not tolerate much shade.
Common cultivars: ‘Northwind’, ‘Shenandoah’, ‘Heavy Metal’
*Prairie Dropseed - Sporobolus heterolopsis
Native grass that tolerates a variety of soil types, from heavy clay to dry, rocky soil. With a height of 2-3 ft. tall, and airy panicles of golden seed head, it serves as a great groundcover. Effective when planted en masse or along borders.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) 'Standing Ovation.' Photo: Mikaela Boley
*Little bluestem - Schizachyrium scoparium
A native grass with many cultivars available to exhibit the beautiful blue coloring (turning to red and orange in the fall). Grows 1.5-3 ft. tall, preferring dry soil types. Important to birds and insects, but also deer proof.
Common cultivars: ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Cimmaron’, ‘Smoke Signal’
*Purple love grass - Erogrostis spectabilis
A very short (1-2 ft.) grass with airy clouds of purple seed head. Prefers medium to dry soil moisture and is tolerant of infertile, droughty soils. Excellent when used along borders or in mass plantings.
*+Northern sea oats - Chasmanthium latifolium
Grows in average to wet soils and is one of the more shade-tolerant grasses. Grows 2-5 ft. tall, it produces large ornamental seed heads that turn from green to bronze in the fall. Self-seeds and may spread aggressively.
*Tufted hair grass - Deschampsia cespitosa
One of the more shade-tolerant grass species, prefers part-shade over full sun. Foliage remains semi-evergreen and forms a dense tussock of thin leaf blades. Height of 2-3’, works best massed in woodland gardens or naturalized areas.
Pearl millet - Pennisetum glaucum
Annual grass most commonly used in the fall for container or temporary harvest décor. May be dried and used in arrangements.
Common cultivars: ‘Purple Majesty’, ‘Purple Baron’
*+Indiangrass - Sorghastrum nutans
A tall clumping grass often planted in a seed mix with conservation or right-of-way landscapes. Takes several years to reach a mature height of 6-8 ft. Requires full sun. Foliage can take on a steely blue-green appearance, with a feathery yellow-orange seed head. May be considered too tall for the landscape. Can demonstrate dominant habit in a meadow, out-competing other species.
Common cultivars: ‘Indian Steel’, ‘Sioux Blue’
*Bottlebrush grass - Elymus hystrix
Clump-forming cool season grass with good tolerance for shade. Prefers part-shade in well-drained soils, but has adaptability to dry and clay soil types. Height of 2.5-3 ft. Attractive bristly seed heads that are 9-10 in. in length, matures earlier than warm-season grasses.
You might have noticed Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima or Stipa tenuissima) showing up in gardens and other areas all over town. Mexican feather grass is even grown on green roofs. The seeds are at the very tips of the featherlike "blades," which wave in the gentlest of winds. Mexican feather grass also spreads. It can show up all over the yard, in sidewalk cracks, and down the street in neighbors' yards.
Mexican feather grass survives in dry conditions and thrives just fine after being cut back. Some native plant organizations consider it invasive. If you can contain it, though, this grass is quite lovely, especially when it blows in the wind.
While most people think of grass as their lawn, ornamental grasses fit in many places in the landscape. In a flowering perennial border, ornamental grasses can provide interesting leaf color and texture, plant height and interest late in the season. 'Karl Foerster' reed grass grows 5 feet tall with tan-colored flower spikes in fall that hold through winter. Japanese blood grass grows only 18 inches tall with red and green colored leaf blades. Porcupine grass has leaf blades with yellow and green banding on 6 foot tall plants. Fescue grass has a mounding habit with blue-green leaf blades. Some are less than 1 foot tall.
As you can see, some ornamental grasses can grow quite large. This makes them excellent privacy screen plants and good for making a seasonal hedge. Giant Miscanthus and Giant Reed grass can grow 10 to 15 feet tall making not only a visual block but a wind screen.
On the other extreme, some ornamental grasses are excellent low-growing, rock garden plants. Moor grass, blue oat grass and dwarf fountain grass stay below 2 feet tall while still providing interesting foliage and flower heads. Some of the sedges grow so low they make beautiful ground covers. Hakone grass features a floppy, mounding plant with yellow and green leaf blades. An edging of hakone grass around a flower garden is stunning.
'Karl Foerster' Feather Reed Grass creates a dramatic garden accent, with tall, slender, vertical growth and feathery plumes of shifting bronze color that stay in place year-round. A.
Everyone should grow some grass. No I don’t mean lawns, or that “other” grass, but ornamental grass. Ornamental grasses have become a staple fixture in many residential and commercial landscapes. While they are a getting a bit over used in my opinion, I still love them. The big draw of ornamental grasses is their flower heads in fall and winter. These beautiful grasses not only add color and texture to a bleak landscape, they add motion. When a breeze blows through a stand of oat or reed grass you can almost see the wind’s shape and intensity. While many ornamental grasses are easy to grow, you have to be selective about which ones you plant in our climate. Here are some of my favorites.
Karl Forester reed grass has pink plumes in summer that last into fall. This grass grows 4 to 5 feet tall so makes a statement when plant en mass. Northern Oat grass grows 3 to 4 feet tall and in fall produces flattened, oat seed heads that sound great in a breeze and look beautiful cut as a dried flower indoors. One word of caution, oat grass can self sow readily and become weedy in the garden. Japanese Silver grass or Miscanthus sinensis grows 3 to 6 feet tall in tightly packed clumps and has pink or red flowers. A nice low mounding grass is called blue fescue. It grows only 8 inches tall in mound shape with attractive blue-green leaves and airy flowers. It’s great along the front of a border. One tall ornamental grass you’ll see along roadsides and ditches that shouldn’t be brought into the landscape is Phragmites or common reed grass. It’s an invasive and chokes out other native plants.
Now for this week’s tip, it’s time to bring in tender potted herbs such as rosemary. Place them in a shady spot outdoors to acclimate to low light, then bring them into a bright window indoors and keep the soil moist, but not over watered.
Tap into your inner hairstylist as you lean over the fountain grass and comb or rake your gloved fingers through the middle of the clump, grabbing all loose and dead or dried-up hairs (blades/branches). Comb through the entire grass, and shake it occasionally to get out more dried plant material. You may end up with a good-sized pile of the dead stuff, which you should pitch into a portable container as you go along. Otherwise, it's a real chore to clean up all of those blades and clumps of grass after you've done the pruning and grooming.
While some native grass species self-seed freely, non-native grass species that spread too easily are considered invasive to our ecosystem. It is recommended that you avoid purchasing the following ornamental species, even though plant nurseries commonly have them available.
Chinese silvergrass - Miscanthus sinensis
Fountaingrass - Pennisetum alopecuroides (also known as Cenchrus alopecuroides )
Chinese fountaingrass - Pennisetum purpurascens (also known as Cenchrus purpurascens )
Hardy Pampas grass - Saccharum ravennae (formerly known as Erianthus ravennae )
Japanese bloodgrass - Imperata cylindrica