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Cattail

Cattails grow best where there is water. They are easy to spot with their narrow leaves and brown fuzzy — or cattail — flower.

Years ago, I watched a neighbor fuss, fret, and use a chainsaw to trim his very tall, very full and very beautiful ornamental grass. He was so cranky that day after all the work that I have never planted my own.

This might be my year.

I am drawn to the way the tall, slender leaves and tassels blow in the wind; I would love to have this in my garden. Still wary of the chainsaw, I decided to research the different types and what might be the best fit for the little house on a big hill gardens.

What we call ornamental grass is actually several different families. True grasses are in the Poaceae family. Other plants we casually toss into the ornamental family but that are actually different include cattails (Typhaceae), rushes (Juncaceae), and sedges (Cyperaceae).

Cattails grow best where there is water. They are easy to spot with their narrow leaves and brown fuzzy — or cattail — flower. Rushes have round and solid stems. Sedges have solid stems that are not round but have three-angled edges. True grasses have round hollow stems.

If all of this sounds like a botany lesson, I found a fun little rhyme that sums up the differences. “Sedges have edges and rushes are round; grasses are hollow and bend to the ground.”

For me, I am most interested in the size and color of the mature grass. I have small blue fescue planted in my rock garden. It has a powder blue color, likes full sun, and has matured to about twelve inches tall — and will stay in a small mound. The cool color is a nice contrast to the other shades of green in this garden.

Ornamental grasses have three distinct shapes. Tufted, which has spiky leaves that rise from the center of the plant, like my fescue. Upright has strong vertical leaves and grows in clumps, and the mounded, which has foliage that is more delicate and grows from the center or crown of the plant.

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The small grasses are a good choice for pathways, front of gardens, and even containers. However, I want to experiment with the taller varieties. Given my space limitations, I will look for grass that grows in a clump versus a creeper.

Beware, as beautiful as the tall grasses are, many are self-seeding and can be invasive. Planting native grasses is always a good idea. I don’t have the space for it to expand, and I don’t want to keep watch and control new growth. This might make me act like my grumpy neighbor.

I want a warm-season grass. It will begin to grow as the temperatures warm. Some gardeners will cut this tall grass back after the first frost. I suggest leaving it tall with the blooms intact through winter — giving the birds seeds and shelter until early spring — then cutting it back to about six inches from the ground.

Cool-season grasses go dormant in the summer. They begin growing in late winter, and once the temperature heats up, they can be trimmed to about half their size.

Here’s the thing. My neighbor was onto something. Large mature grass can be tricky to cut. It might be a good idea to bundle it before trimming. Then, wearing gloves and long sleeves to protect yourself from the sharp leaves, use hedge trimmers or even a chainsaw to cut back the clumps.

Don’t tell my neighbor (he’s a nice guy) but writing about a chainsaw swinging man this close to Halloween is kinda spooky and sounds similar to the plot of a scary movie.

When I choose which grass to plant, I will use it with other plantings. It will be the backdrop for a new vignette. I have a spot where it will get sun and a slight breeze. The air is essential. Grasses pollinate through air, not insects.

October is a good time to plant, but I need to decide soon and let my new plants settle in before the winter months. If you are thinking of ornamental grasses, know you have many shapes, sizes, and colors to choose from, so do your research and be careful with the chainsaw.

Jane Powell is a longtime West Virginia University Extension Service master gardener through the Kanawha County chapter. She is the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Find her blog, “Gardening in Pearls,” at gardeninginpearls.com. You can contact her at janeellenpowell@aol.com.

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