Ornamental grasses, with their vibrant greens and exuberant displays of flower spikes, add texture, color and variety to lawns, serve as a visual backdrop for flowers, and can be used to create borders and natural screens. Ornamental grasses are fairly resistant to diseases and pests, but they will occasionally react to less-than-ideal conditions by displaying brown tips. By following some basic gardening guidelines for ornamental grasses, you can help them regain--or re-grow--perfect blades.
Ornamental Grass Requirements
In order for your ornamental grass to exhibit its true color and remain healthy, it must first be suited to your climate and hardiness zone. Familiarize yourself with this information before you invest in a grass. Ornamental grasses generally prefer full sun, but some varieties--particularly maiden grass, fountain grass, and sea oats--will tolerate partial shade. Most varieties also require well-drained soil, with the exception of umbrella grass; this plant actually prefers soggy conditions.
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Brown Tip Problems and Solutions
If the tips of your ornamental grasses are browning, over-watering may be the cause. Always allow soil around the plants to dry out between watering. Brown tips on ornamental grasses can also be caused by over-fertilizing. According to The Garden Helper website, you should use a slow-release fertilizer with a 3-1-2 or 4-1-2 formulation. Avoid under-watering--another possible cause of brown tips--by watering during dry weather, especially as the grasses are establishing themselves. If the grass was root-bound in the pot, it will have a hard time absorbing water from the soil. Treat a root-bound ornamental grass before transplanting by chopping off the bottom inch of roots and cutting slits into the roots down the sides. To make sure the root system can establish itself easily, loosen up the soil to a distance of two times the size of the rootball.
Another cause of brown tips is the fact that most ornamental grasses go dormant over the winter; solve the problem of "winter brown" by cutting back the grass early in the spring. Cut back as far as 6 inches from the crown. Pampas grass, in particular, requires a spring haircut. Although it will look bare for a little while, you will be rewarded with fresh new growth. Ornamental grasses, particularly blue fescue, also need to be divided every two to three years; this will revitalize them. Sometimes, the brown tips are just the grass's way of expressing displeasure with being transplanted. Trim the brown edges off, water well, and remember what gardeners often say about ornamental grasses: the first year they sleep; second year they creep; third year, they leap. Have patience.
Some types of ornamental grasses are less vulnerable to brown tips than others. Particularly hardy varieties include purple fountain grass and Karl Foerster feather reed grass. Giant reed and Northern sea oats also tend to resist browning.
Carol Sarao is an entertainment and lifestyle writer whose articles have appeared in Atlantic City Weekly, The Women's Newspaper of Princeton, and New Millennium Writings. She has interviewed and reviewed many national recording acts, among them Everclear, Live, and Alice Cooper, and received her Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Warren Wilson College.