Friday, April 28, 2017

Tips for Ornamental Grass Maintenance: Prune with Fire

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“Grass is the forgiveness of nature — her constant benediction. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.”
(John James Ingalls – 1872)

In an era of increasing climate chaos - the traditional early spring pruning of deciduous grasses can be a moving target.

Regardless, Spring in cool climates remains the time to prune ornamental grasses. But traditional spring - is at best hard to get a handle on. One day it’s hot then it’s not. By the beginning of May, you should have your grasses pruned.

Here I’m talking about the deciduous grasses that go from green to golden straw in the winter.

I leave the grasses in place in the winter for my own garden and my clients’. The birds and other pollinators appreciate the in-place grasses for a variety of reasons, including food and shelter.

In addition, the grasses look glamorous in the winter landscape - capturing snow and glistening bits of ice.
Or one can use the golden winter grasses to tie up a fig, as my client did. Beautiful.

Plus, the ornamentals marry up with a variety of plant companions that continue to look dazzling in the autumn landscape garden.

My horticultural experience with ornamental, clump grasses in our Zone 7 is to prune or cut back in mid March to April.

The rather newbie grasses can be tied at the top - along the grass stems to prevent the cut dead material from blowing away and makes removal easier.
This insures that the new green shoots can emerge and grow to full, robust stature.
You can also divide the grasses - just like a perennial.

However, the more mature ornamental grasses can be comprised with just a straight away cut in the Spring. What I call “Fire Farming” or burning of the grasses is most beneficial.

I learned this technique from Chanticleer Garden’s Bill Thomas at a New York Botanical Garden lecture.

As an aside, I have to add - Bill Thomas was ever so kind to my family: providing a most memorable Chanticleer-guided tour following a family wedding at Villanova the day before. So coming in on a Sunday was a true courtesy. I’m sure Bill did it as horticulture love as I was then the Director of Communications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Nevertheless, I was astonished he was our garden guide! We’re forever grateful -- still talking about it, as a matter of fact. And as a result of that tour, me and my husband Bill were so inspired by the beauty of the asparagus and it’s lovely fronds and delicious spring edibles - we’ve grown it ever since. Thank you again…

Who started the Burning of Ecosystems?
With regard to the ornamental grasses and Chanticleer’s burning of the grasses - Bill explained it’s an ancient Native American tradition the Gardeners learned.

I further researched and found Native Americans practiced a kind of “Fire Farming” - and according to Native Tech, “...often beginning with a prayer or ceremony to attract positive energies….” to: “Improve growth and yields - Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries, and huckleberries), and tobacco."

And further:
“Burning to establish or keep … resource diversity, environmental stability… and maintenance…”

Why should you do it? Why bother “Fire Farming” your ornamental grasses? For the same reasons. Burning provides a healthier growing condition for the grass to continue a round, summer green girth growth.

It helps eliminate or mitigate the “donut hole” that can develop over time with ornamental grasses in bloom. How will you know when to pursue “Fire Farming?” When the grasses continue to grow “around” the clump. Over time, that kind of circular growth diminishes the robust look and health of the grass.

So here’s a quick How-To for burning your ornamental grasses in order to keep them healthy and looking their best.

Not unlike the Native Americans, you may want to start your Fire Farming with a prayer! 
Seriously - the good horticulture procedure takes attention, safety precautions are a must, but it’s easy - and even a bit fun. The new growth can more readily emerge with the burning process.

You’ll need:
  • String
  • Electric pruners
  • Hand-held propane Torch
  • Water hose with sprayer
  • Long sleeves and gloves

  • Monitor the weather reports and choose a day that is not windy
  • Tie up the stems or culms, and top with string and cut the grasses at ground level. 
  • Take the spent stems to your town’s recycling center or compost if you can. (these stems will not break down quickly!)
  • Use the propane torch to burn the center of the grasses. This may take a few attempts. Don’t expect to get an even burn all at once. 
  •  Torch or burn in small stages, making your way around the grass’ center.

When finished, douse with water from the hose you have placed near the operations. Use the water if the flames do burn to high or start to spread. But remember, once you wet the grass, you can’t burn it again until it dries.

So there you have it. An historical - and easy - way to nurture your ornamental grasses to achieve longer, healthier plant life. The grasses add such beauty to the landscaped garden: texture, color, architectural structure…

Tips on Landscaping with Grasses from Digital Commons at USA Education, courtesy of JD Gunnell. Plant now for impact in the garden in every season.

Grasses for impact:

Andropogon gerardii (Big bluestem)

Arundo donax ‘Variegata’ (Giant reed)

Calamagrostis x acutiflora (Feather reed grass) 

Miscanthus sinensis (Japanese silver grass)

Panicum virgatum (Switch grass)

Pennisetum alopecuroides (Fountain grass)

Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem)

Grasses as a groundcover:

Bouteloua gracilis (Blue grama)

Buchloe dactyloides (Buffalo grass)

Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge) - 

Hierochloe odorata (Sweet grass)

Koeleria macrantha (Prairie June grass)

Grasses for shade:

Carex sp. (Sedges)

Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern sea oats) - 

Deschampsia sp. (Tufted hair grass)

Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass)

Milium effusum (Wood millet)

Grasses for dry sites:

Andropogon gerardii (Big bluestem)

Blepharoneuron tricholepsis (Pine dropseed) - 

Bouteloua gracilis (Blue grama)

Elytrigia elongata (Tall wheatgrass)

Koeleria macrantha (Prairie June grass)

Lymus cinereus (Basin wild rye)

Nassela virdula (Green needle grass)

Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem)

Sorgastrum nutans (Indian grass)

Enjoy the garden glamour of ornamental grasses!


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