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Maintaining Ornamental Grasses

California fescue & striped agave

California fescue, Festuca californica, in February

To illustrate how to maintain grasses for Anita’s class, we took photos of the process with one of our California fescues (Festuca Californica). The first photo is in late February with the grass full of fresh growth from the rains. California fescue is a cool season grower, so its growing season starts in the fall and ends in the spring after it blooms.  

Festuca californica in June

California Fescue, Festuca californica, in June

This is the California fescue three months later with most of the foliage turned to straw. It would normally look a bit tidier, but a skunk or raccoon or one of our neighbor’s nefarious cats rolled on this one and ruined its form, so it’s time for a haircut. This particular plant is three years old, and this is the first time we’re cutting it back, though last year we cut out the bloom stalks after they dried. We could leave the plant as a tangle of straw all summer and cut it back in the fall, but it will be less conspicuous and less worrisome to the fire marshall if we cut it now. In theory, there are various optimal times to cut back grasses, depending on the species and how you feel about them getting full of straw, but the reality is that we cut them whenever it seems necessary or convenient. Something we try to keep in mind with the ornamental grasses is that their turf relatives get attacked with a lawn mower every week, so we’re probably not going to do any irreparable damage if we cut them back a little early or a little late.

California fescue, Festuca californica, after a haircut

California fescue, Festuca californica, after a haircut

Here’s the fescue with a fresh haircut, looking like a porcupine in a defensive posture. Six or eight inches is generally the height you cut ornamental grasses back, though that can vary with the species. The new foliage would have a hard time forcing its way through all that straw, so you’re making its task easier.

California fescue, Festuca californica, cut and clean

California fescue, Festuca californica, cut and clean

The cut fescue was still looking congested after the haircut, so we took some time to pull out a lot of the straw. You grasp individual stalks or groups of a few stalks, and they will come easily if the foliage is dead; living foliage is rooted, so it will resist. If you pull out live green foliage you are probably pulling too hard, and if nothing comes out, you are not pulling hard enough. You don’t need to worry about hurting the plant by pulling out a few extra green shoots; like I said, this plant’s relatives get attacked with a lawn mower, so you are relatively benign, even if you get overzealous. I’m not sure that this fescue looks all that much better now, immediately after the treatment, but it will have an easier time filling out again, when it starts up its growth in the fall. We don’t always do this step. It took fifteen or twenty minutes to do this one plant, which is a long time to spend on a grass, and it’s not always practical for a planting with a lot of grasses. It’s really important, though, if you are rejuvenating a grass that has been overwatered, and in that situation the dead foliage will come quickly and easily.

California fescue, festuca californica

California fescue, festuca californica

Another option for grasses is to divide them, best done at the start of their growing season, which is November in the case of the fescue. I like this option, reasoning that if I’m going to spend a lot of time on a grass, I would like to end up with multiple grasses when I’m done. Grasses and sedges divide really easily; dig the plant up, and split it into sections (use a garden fork, your hands, or your felcos), and if you end up with some green foliage attached to some root, then you can probably grow that into another plant. We get better results putting our divisions into potting soil for a while, but you don’t have to. The fescue in the photo was divided and replanted directly into the ground, and the foliage is still sparse, though it should fill out next year.

grass cut last year

unknown grass, Stipa?

It was too late in the season for us to get a good photo of a fescue that has completely greened up and grown back after a haircut, but this grass is still looking green. It gets regular irrigation, so it filled out within a single season. You can still see the line from the cut. The grass is probably some kind of stipa. It looks like Mexican feather grass, but for some reason I remember it being one of the other Stipa varieties.

ryan 6/14

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One Response to “Maintaining Ornamental Grasses”

  1. June 16th, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    bradzio says:

    I like that stipa. I’m wondering if it’s less invasive than the mexican feathergrass variety.