By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
There are over 100 species of sedge plants. What is sedge? These grass-like plants are drought tolerant, easy to grow and practically maintenance free. There are many types of sedge to choose from, but native sedge plants offer the opportunity to replenish and renew natural landscapes while giving the gardener a hardy plant made for the region. Whichever species you opt for, growing sedge plants in the garden brings texture and movement to any area of the landscape.
At first glance, one might assume sedges are grasses. They are not and are held in the genus Carex. Sedges span both native varieties and hybridized versions. They are useful in moist areas, such as around ponds, but there are also types of sedge that thrive in dry regions. Both ornamental and native sedge plants produce tiny seeds which feed some bird species, and many animals use the foliage to line and create nests.
Sedge plants have the characteristic strappy leaves similar to many grasses, and just like grass, they reproduce from seed and rhizomes. Sedge crowds out other invasive species and comes in many hues and heights. It is an evergreen plant that does much of its growing in the cooler seasons and may go dormant in hot temperatures.
Most nurseries have some varieties of sedge on hand. If you are looking for a particular species, you may need to order seed or starts. Seeded plants will take a couple of seasons to get to useable size but they grow as easily as grass seed. It is best to source native varieties through a grower, as some of these plants are endangered and harvesting from the wild is prohibited.
The majority of sedge types grow in either sun or shade. Cool zones should plant in sun while warmer locations will find better production if the plants are situated in slightly shady parts of the garden. Additionally, some varieties are xeric or require dry locations, while others are hydric and need to be constantly moist. Sedges that are mesic have the broadest tolerance of both dry and moist conditions.
Growing sedge plants in mesic soil sets the odds for you on big beautiful plants in almost any region. Some types to try are:
Sedge plant care is minimal. They rarely need fertilizer, the plants can be easily moved and they grow rapidly and can even be used as a turf. Sedge plants take to occasional mowing in lawn situations and have the advantage of requiring little further attention, unlike traditional turf grass, which needs plenty of added nitrogen and may get weedy.
When fertilizing, feed the plant in early summer with a light nitrogen plant food.
Irrigate plants in the sun at least 3 times during the month. For those plants in shadier areas, irrigate just once per month unless your region is in acute drought, in which case water 2 times per month. Suspend watering in fall and winter.
If you wish, cut back sedges after they have bloomed to preserve a more tidy appearance. You can mow the plants but use a sharp blade and mow no lower than 2/3 the plant’s height. If the plant starts to die out in the center, divide the sedge between spring and early summer to make even more plants. If you don’t want the plant to seed, cut off the seed heads in early spring.
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Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta) is a rhizomatous evergreen sedge that forms a dense "tussock" of grassy, rich blue-green leaves. Also known as "upright sedge," this variety hybridizes with many other Carex species in the Cyperaceae family.
While spreading by rhizomes to form large colonies, this plant grows one to three feet tall and one to two feet wide. "Carex" in Latin refers to the sharp leaves and stem edges found on most species plants. Rushes are round but sedges have edges. Handling the plant with gloves to prevent any accidental cuts could be a good idea.
As leaves die, they form elevated clumps around the base. Green flower spikes appear above the foliage in late spring, and the blooms become chocolate or reddish-brown as they mature. The fruit ripens in August and the foliage provides winter interest into the cooler months.
This low-maintenance perennial tolerates deer and erosion. Native to wet sites in Eastern North America, it thrives in marshes, swamps, bogs, swales, meadows, creek margins, low wet fields, as well as shores of rivers or lakes.
Tussock Sedge is perfect for growing at the edges of shady ponds or in gardens that are prone to flooding, and it also does well grown in containers with other water-loving species.
|Botanical Name||Carex stricta|
|Common Names||Tussock Sedge, Upright Sedge|
|Plant Type||Rhizomatous evergreen|
|Mature Size||One to three feet tall and one to two feet wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Wet clay|
|Soil pH||Acidic to neutral|
|Bloom Time||Late spring|
|Flower Color||Reddish brown|
|Hardiness Zones||3 - 8, USA|
|Native Area||Eastern North America|
Space 12-15 inches apart for fast spread. Space 15-18 inches or 18-24 inches for slower spread. Plant in groups as a groundcover in a rain garden or between trees or chaparral shrubs where it will tolerate deer, drought, heavy shade, erosion, and sometimes wet soil.
While it is ornamentally beautiful, it can also be used as a lawn substitute and mowed in areas that are difficult to landscape (it is also tolerant of trampling). The evergreen's other practical purposes are its ability to stabilize soil and attract birds that are fond of its seeds.
Foothill Sedge prefers part shade to full shade though it will tolerate full sun along the West coast.
This species will establish in any medium moisture soil. One of the advantages of foothill sedge is that it can grow in most soils and isn't fussy about pH or nutrient levels.
Foothill Sedge requires some moisture but can still spread slowly by rhizomes through short periods of dryness.
When established, water once a week at most. Because it is fairly drought-tolerant, this sedge only requires medium regular watering.
Foothill sedge will not survive winter north of Zone 8 but can be grown as an annual in these cooler climates.
Part of the appeal of foothill sedge is it's low-maintenance requirements. This is also true when it comes to feeding. They don't need a lot of nutrients and will manage without fertilization in all but the poorest of soils. In these instances, they will only need occasional and very light feeding. This is another reason they appeal to some people as a ground cover. They won't need lots of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the way a standard lawn grass will.
This plant has proven so popular that a number of cultivars have been bred by a Dutch company under the name "Carex Colorgrass." Such marketing descriptions have proven very appealing to the home and garden DIY customer base which has exploded in recent years. The company was bought by a US company in 2009 and many of these varieties are still available as both plants and seeds. For the most part, the seeds are sold to nursery operations who then grow plugs in greenhouses for commercial sale in spring.
The most common variety of New Zealand sedge sold commercially is known as "Prairie Fire." Other brand names include "Red Rooster," "Bronco," and a variety called "Phoenix Green" that maintains more of its green hues in autumn.
Bristleleaf sedge is available via mail order from many nurseries. It's usually propagated via tissue culture and then grown as a plug in greenhouses for commercial availability.
It should go without saying, it's better to try and obtain this plant commercially than to remove it from its native environment. In fact, bristleleaf sedge is considered endangered in some Northeastern states. Once established in home gardens, it naturalizes well, and is fairly resistant to deer, as most sedges are.
The bristleleaf sedge is a somewhat slow grower, as it spreads via rhizome rather than seed. In optimal conditions, it can grow very large colonies and make an effective and attractive ground cover.
Bristlelead sedge is very heat tolerant, though it still prefers being grown in shady spots.
This plant is fairly tolerant of different soil types and will grow equally well in sandy or rocky soils.
Adding compost and organic matter such as shredded leaves to the planting area can help make an inviting environment to establish your bristle leaf sedge.
It can even grow in woodland gardens as long as the soil is not too acidic.
Bristleleaf sedge prefers alkaline soil to acid soil, so try to avoid planting it near pine trees, and don't add peat moss or coffee grounds as soil amendments, as these tend to make your soil more acidic.
It has a very high tolerance for calcium in soils, as well as limestone. If you know your soil tends to be acidic, consider adding some lime to it before planting bristleleaf sedge, and mix a bit of lime into the soil around the plants in autumn.
Carex eburnea is a drought-tolerant species and does not require a lot of additional irrigation.
If the soil is decent, bristleleaf sedge shouldn't need any additional fertilizer once established.
Winter hardy Carex sedge is most widely used as a groundcover.
Mass plantings and group plantings around smaller gardens and borders are beautiful.
In addition to being ornamental, the plants also stabilize soils and are great for controlling soil erosion and in locations where drought tolerant plants are required.
Can it be used as a lawn substitute?
Yes, all you have to do it is mow it down.
It is especially beneficial for small and difficult areas of the landscape.
Besides adding winter interest, you might be surprised but this sedge is also an attraction for pollinators, especially birds.
They feed on the seeds when they are in abundance on the plant.