On Jan. 3, Bulletin photographer Joe Kline provided readers with some Central Oregon eye candy. The images of hoarfrost on the ponderosa pine and the mountain ash berries deserved more than one look.

Although it was a period of potentially icy and dangerous driving conditions, it was also a time of entering into a magical space of frosty beauty.

Seeing the ornamental trees decorated in hoarfrost reminded me of something that’s been bothering me: the beautiful ornamental grasses that were pruned to stumps last fall. Isn’t that pruning defeating the purpose of planting ornamental grasses?

I may be off center, but I always considered ornamental grasses to be advantageous for their multiseasonal interest: spring for the burst of green, summer for the development and ripening of the seed heads and then fall and winter for the structural interest. The grasses left standing become twice as delightful when we experience the periods of hoarfrost.

I asked a professional landscape friend for logical reasons why grasses are cut back in the fall. He gave me a reasonable answer regarding his commercial customers. The reason given made sense to me and did increase my tolerance level: If the grasses are part of a commercial landscape and are adjacent to the parking lot, the clumps are cut back for more efficient snow clearance and removal. The grasses could be severely damaged by a snow plow, causing them to break over and become more of a hazard. As for an answer for his residential customers, he said he couldn’t understand why they want them cut down either.

Why plant ornamental grasses? They tolerate a wide range of soil types. Most varieties prefer moderate to low water usage. Full sun to partial shade is their preference. Foliage texture runs the gamut of fine silky blades to wide and stiff texture. Foliage colors range from bluish-green of blue oat grass to the striking color of black Mondo grass and the purplish plumes of feather reed grass. Ornamental grasses available these days are a far cry from the old Pampas grass.

Ornamental grasses have very few disease problems and have low nutrient requirements, so there is no high maintenance. Cutting back to 6 to 8 inches is done in the late winter or early spring before the major flush of new growth. Grasses provide food and shelter for birds and small animals; deer generally aren’t interested.

I know there are concerns regarding grasses reseeding. In Central Oregon, some seeds will not ripen because of the short growing season. There is an exception in the native Idaho fescue that does reseed heavily, so it is best used in restoration sites.

In the first chapter of “The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses,” author Rick Darke writes that the “aesthetic appeal of ornamental grasses is quite distinct from that of most garden perennials. Instead of brightly colored, broad-petaled flowers, grasses offer a wealth of beauty and interest derived from translucency, line, form, texture, scale, seasonal change, sound and movement.” He brings our attention to the fact that colors are more muted, giving them a softly sophisticated, less-saturated quality.

For grass varieties that do well in Central Oregon, refer to “Water-wise Gardening in Central Oregon,” by Amy Jo Detweiler, Oregon State University Extension horticulturist and associate professor. It’s available online or at the OSU Extension office in Redmond.

— Reporter: douville@bendbroadband.com

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