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Pruning in the Fall
There is much mystery and confusion concerning the care and maintenance of grasses. As a whole, they are easy plants to care for with there being two basic groups: warm season grasses and cool season grasses. The season refers to the time of year in which the plants begin active growth and whether the plant dies back, is evergreen or semi-evergreen through the winter.
Warm Season Grasses
Warm season grasses do not begin to show growth until the weather settles and the soil begins to warm in the spring. Prior to this, their previous year's growth has browned out to a buff-colored skeleton.
These plants require cutting back usually to within four to six inches of the ground and the debris removed. This can be done anytime from late autumn to mid-February. Cutting back does not have to be elaborate and should be done before the new growth emerges. For small plantings, a hand pruner can be used; for larger plantings, metal blade "weed-eaters" or power hedge trimmers are very effective. Sometimes dried plants can be used as dried flower arrangements. The rest can be composted or mulched. That's it!
Grasses need division infrequently, from once every two or three years to once in a decade. Early spring is the best time to divide and transplant. Warm season grasses include such species as Arundo, Chasmanthium, Erianthus, Imperata, Miscanthus, Molinia, Panicum, Pennisetum and Spartina. A rule of thumb is if it dies back, cut it back.
Cool Season Grasses
Cool season grasses are a little different. These include such ornamental grasses as Festuca, Deschampsia, Helictotrichon and Sesleria. They may require more frequent dividing to keep them healthy, attractive and vigorous. They can die back from the center and should be divided at that time. As for the semi-evergreen varieties, cut off the brown or died-back foliage in the spring and leave the green healthy foliage in place. Basically, with cool season grasses, clean up their appearance so they are attractive.
Growing Conditions and Maintenance
Fertilization: Grasses respond to fertilizer the same way as lawn turf; however, it may be necessary to withhold fertilizer as a means to control growth. It is preferable to use a slow-release type fertilizer, such as Osmocote 15-9-12, applied in the spring, to give a steady feeding throughout the growing season.
Watering: Once established, grasses require only occasional watering after extended dry spells. It is recommended, however, to give adequate water when first planting and to plant in very well drained soils to ensure survival.
Shading: Most grasses, though not all, prefer full sun to perform optimally; however, not all situations may be suitable for ideal growth because of trees, hedges or buildings. Don't despair! Grasses can take less than ideal conditions, although they probably will not be as tall, full or robust as grown in full sun and may require staking.
Spacing: Spacing of grasses is one of the most critical aspects of design and one that is most ignored. Ornamental grasses grow and develop quickly to fill their space. Save unnecessary maintenance costs by following this simple rule of thumb: space plants as far apart as they will get tall. In most cases, this will prevent overcrowding.
Mulching: Mulching is another aspect of maintenance. Mulching will perform several functions. First, for weed control, use at least four inches of bark or compost around the base of the grasses and perennials to control weeds and reduce the need of herbicides. Perennials can easily tolerate a lot of mulch. Second, also mulch for temperature control, primarily for the winter protection of the roots and culms from cold damage.
Weed control: Weed control in ornamental grasses can be done with mulch, hand weeding or chemically. The first two ways are self-explanatory. For pre-emergent weed control, use Hi-Yield Weed and Grass Preventer, a granular formulation or Casaron granules. It can be used in landscapes and containers but read the label first for specifics. For post-emergent weed control, use a lawn weed control for broad leaf weeds or carefully use Killzall®, which can be effectively used around warm season grasses during the dormant time of the year.
Soil preparation: Soil preparation for grasses is important and should be done before planting. Grasses will respond positively to some kind of good soil preparation. Use good organic amendments; either leaf mold, mushroom compost, garden debris compost, bark or sawdust. They will also respond to compost as a top dressing over the crown of the plants. Soil incorporation can be accomplished by either hand-spading into the planting hole or - preferably - by spreading out over the garden area and incorporating by deep tilling.