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Retail Newsletter from Bluestem Nursery

June 2004

Feeding Ornamental Grasses

I started this newsletter in early May with the intention of giving you instructions on how to fertilize your ornamental grasses. Most of you have them in the ground and may have given the grasses a feeding by now, but at least this will give you some info for next year.

Elymus magellanicus - available next year (2005)

Instructions regarding the feeding of ornamental grasses are really very simple - don't do it. Well, actually that is a bit of an exageration, but grasses actually prefer to be grown on the lean side. They will be sturdier without the addition of the high-powered nutrients. You may think that fertilizers such as are used on lawns would be appropriate for grasses however have you noticed how quickly the lawn grows after fertilizing? Tall-growing ornamental grasses will bolt for the sky and with such rapid growth will be unable to hold themselves up. Result - floppy plants.

Just remember to go easy on organic fertilizers too. On the Garden Web Forum I have read a tale by an experienced ornamental grass grower who worked a lot of compost into his planting hole. The grasses flopped badly. In comparison, his grasses planted without compost did fine.

The only exception to the rule is Miscanthus. It does better with some extra fertilizer and moisture. The solution to the potential flopping problem is to use organic fertilizers such as well-rotted manure, mushroom manure, compost, leaf mold, etc. What makes organic fertilizers acceptable is that they release their nutrients sloooowly.

Have I convinced you? Limit your fertilizing!

Watering Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses, be they plugs or field-grown clumps, need to be well watered their first year. The soil was fluffed up when you dug the hole, so it will dry out faster. The plant's roots are not well-established and some of the roots were lost when the plant was dug up. This means that there aren't quite as many roots to take care of the top growth as the plant had planned. Readily accessible moisture makes the job of the roots a whole lot easier.

Note: Mulch can be very useful the first year. However, do not mulch right to the crown of the plant. This can cause the crown to rot because of the constant moisture.

But the next year is a completely different story. Their root systems should be well established, meaning they have gone deep in search of water and nutrients. They can take care of themselves for fairly lengthy periods of time, especially as they get older. If you have a layer of mulch, they can fend for themselves for longer. However, excessive watering will cause them to flop. Have you ever grown Achillea (Yarrow) in rich moist soil? Same problem. These plants want to live a spartan existence.

How Deep to Plant

It is very important to plant your ornamental grasses so that the crown of the plant is level with the soil's surface. Some grasses, in particular Helictotrichon and Pennisetum, are very sensitive to being planted too deep. The crown rots and the plant dies.

NOTE: The following instructions are no longer the suggested method for planting plugs. Simply plant them them as you would any other plant, paying particular attention to firming the soil around the plant, planting so the crown is level with the soil, and watering well. We now have a video on You Tube, though the quality is not very good. It is suggested that you visit YouTube and watch it in High Quality (see the link immediately below the video window): Bluestem's Video on Planting Ornamental Grasses.

Plugs are very popular this year. If you receive plugs that have a packed mass of roots, then cut those roots. Just take a knife or pruners and make a cut about an inch deep. Then spread the halves apart. I know it seems like you are going to kill the plant, but you are actually being kind to it. That tightly packed mass of roots was going to take a long time to find its way out into the soil. With the cuts they find freedom faster.

Cut and spread

I expect you already know, but I would be negligent if I didn't mention that the plugs or the field clumps must be thoroughly watered after transplanting. A good soaking gets rid of any air pockets that might have formed. Those air pockets cause the roots to dry out, even though the roots are under the ground.


Willow shipping is over for this year with the possible exception that their may be a few plugs available after we plant our fields. We will use this newsletter to notify you of any that are available.

The interest in willows is growing just as I had anticipated and we are growing more stock to meet the demand. The interest in living willow structures is also growing tremendously and with articles coming out in gardening magazines (we have asked them to hold back until we have a good supply of willow rods). Next year we hope to have enough to supply most or all of those wanting to make fedges, living willow arbours, chairs, teepees, etc.

New Ornamental Grass Book

Erin Hynes, President of the Minnesota Ornamental Grass Society, has written a booklet called "Cold Climate Ornamental Grasses - The Little Guide to the Biggest Thing in Gardening". It has pictures, basic information, and easily fits in a pocket so that you can take it with you on a trip to the nursery. The cost is US$10. Contact Erin:

Interesting Website

Marjorie Harris, garden writer, has a website that is worth visiting. She has many interesting articles on her website as well as pictures of her Toronto garden.

Use of Information

If you would like to use or reprint any of this information, the answer is usually yes -- but please contact us first. We ask that you include a link to our website and mention the source of the information.


Rather than a humorous quote I suggest you read this amusing "story": http://www.greenprints.com/diary.html

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