By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Ornamental grasses provide a unique texture, color, height, and even sound to the home garden. Many of these grasses can become invasive, as they spread by rhizomes but are well contained in garden pots. Growing ornamental grass in containers also gives you the ability to move tender specimens to sheltered locations when cold or inclement weather hits. Create an elegant, multi-dimensional planter by learning how to grow ornamental grass in a pot.
Ornamental grasses may be native or cultivated species that provide linear interest to the landscape. The most common species for use in containers are the true grasses and members of affiliated families such as sedge, rush, and bamboo. These vertical growers are easy to care for and need little supplemental maintenance.
Caring for potted grasses is an excellent project for even novice gardeners. Choose grasses that are the appropriate size for your containers and suitable for your zone. A few suggestions of good ornamental grasses for containers include:
Growing ornamental grasses in containers is a successful gardening strategy as long as you choose the right species and pot. Use a mixture of compost, topsoil, and a light mix of grit for most grasses.
The pot must have drainage holes and an unglazed or lighter colored pot will evaporate excess moisture better than a glazed, dark colored pot. Also, when growing ornamental grasses in containers, ensure that the pot is wide enough to encompass the arching blades of grass and deep enough for the root system.
Most grasses are self-sufficient. You can plant just one specimen in a pot solo or add some color and smaller species around the edges for an interesting display.
Potted plants need to be watered deeply infrequently. Allow the pot to dry out between watering to a depth of several inches (8 cm.) unless you are growing a water loving species or marginal grass.
Caring for potted grasses involves fertilizing them once per year at the start of the growing season.
Every two years you will need to remove the plant, replace the soil mix, and divide the grass. Use a soil knife or sod saw to cut the roots and plant into two pieces. Pull or cut out the parts that are dying out and then replant each piece separately.
Ornamental grass care for container gardens includes raking or pulling out the dead blades. Some grasses will die back in cold weather, which is signaled by all the blades becoming brown. You can leave them until late winter to early spring and then cut them back to a couple of inches (5 cm.) above the crown. Brand new blades will grow and fill in the plant as spring growth arrives.
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Ornamental Grasses comprise a marvelous group of plants requiring little care. They are not lawn grasses, but rather a group of plants with graceful habits and heights, fine textures and colors that add great beauty and interest to the garden. Because they last so long, they might be called plants for all seasons.
Ornamental Grasses can be grown under many diverse soil conditions, and are usually free of disease and insect problems. Many varieties such as Fountain Grass or Aureola Hakenechloa are tolerant of severe drought. Many large varieties create the illusion of movement, especially in the slightest breeze.
Home gardeners have found that Ornamental Grasses combine well with other flowers and herbs, providing an interesting range of textures and colors to the garden. They may be used successfully to set off small or large lawn areas. The range of color is quite diverse, from the bluest of blues to green, chartreuse, some variegated with silver, white or yellow, to the reddest of reds. Ornamental Grasses are truly outstanding landscape plants, giving an added bonus of material for long-lasting flower arrangements.
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Plants with variegated foliage—foliage with a multicolored pattern—are quite popular among gardeners. The foliage of zebra grass can add both visual interest and privacy to your landscape. Under the right conditions, zebra grass can reach its lush 5- to 8-foot potential with a 4- to 6-foot spread. Its clumping habit makes it ideal to grow as a hedge. Water zebra grass regularly until it’s established. Then, it likely will only need watering during an extended dry spell. Moreover, the plant can benefit from a layer of compost each year.
The golden hakone grass is a most beautiful and distinct grass originating from Japan. It is one of my personal favourites for its beautifully marked green and yellow leaves which while a stronger yellow/gold in sun become a more subtle shade of greenish yellow in shade. While not the fastest to establish in the ground they are among the very best of grasses for use in pots and containers. These grasses are very long lived (10 to 20 years), and have very elegant leaves, which are much longer than wide reducing gradually to a pointed tip. The flowers are often described as ‘insignificant’, but with such beautiful foliage and overall shape they are hardly needed. This refined grass is deciduous so needs cutting down every spring but its foliage will stay intact for most of the winter and being relatively slow-growing it requires a re-potting only every other year or so. Grows to around 30cm – 45cm tall.
Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’. Image: Neil Lucas
Water the plant frequently during the first year to encourage the development of strong roots. Water at least once a week afterward. Avoid over-watering, which encourages the grass to spread and grow wildly. Fertilize once with a slow-release fertilizer, ideally in spring. Over-fertilizing leads to excessive growth. Make sure the container gets at least four hours of sunlight indoors. Rhizome-forming varieties of ornamental grasses are known to be invasive, so transfer them to a bigger pot if they start to outgrow the original container. Spray pests on ornamental grass, such as aphids or spider mites, with water to remove them from the plant.