Gardeners will often talk of flower beds that “come alive” each spring with bright splashes of color and unique textures. But to observe a garden, waterside planting or naturalized field of long-stemmed, feathery-plumed maiden grass gently bending and rippling in the autumn wind is like seeing no other living thing. These ornamental grasses appear to dance.
A favorite of landscape architects, maiden grass is often chosen for naturalized gardens, as a border or mixed border, as a planting along walkways or drives or as a privacy screen or informal hedge. They also add interest to container plantings.
Miscanthus is an easy-to-care-for perennial in the Poaceae family of which there are some fifty varieties available in the United States. Clump forming, they can grow anywhere from 3 to 15 feet in height depending on the cultivar with about a 3 to 5 foot spread.
While miscanthus plants provide a multi-seasonal interest, they are at their most provocative in late summer when feathery plumes appear in shimmering golds, silvers, coppers, reds or even purples depending on the variety.
Light and Temperature Requirements
Maiden grasses prefer full sun. They thrive in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9, but some cultivars will also tolerate zone 4.
When first planted, maiden grass should be watered thoroughly as the plants will need to establish long, healthy roots. Once established, however, only occasional watering is required although more often in excessive heat. Plants should also be watered under the foliage as they are susceptible to rust, a fungal disease that appears on leaves when exposed to splashes of water. They also should be watered at a time during the day when leaves have the ability to dry quickly.
Maiden grasses prefer well-drained soils and are generally tolerant of poor soils. They are also salt tolerant, which makes them a popular choice for seaside areas.
Miscanthus does not have an appetite for heavy fertilization as too much will tend to make the stems floppy and weak and unable to hold up to the cold winds of winter. An annual application before new growth appears of 1/4 to 1/2 cup of all-purpose, balance fertilizer with a 10-10-10 ratio is generally sufficient.
Miscanthus is easily propagated through division and should be done every three to four years when the center of the plant begins to show signs of dying back.
Simply use a spade to dig up the entire clump, then use a sharp shovel or knife to cut the clump into multiple sections with at least four or five healthy roots on each. These new sections should be immediately planted and watered well. As they have a tendency to spread, be sure to space plantings several feet apart.
Were it not for maiden grass plantings, a formal flower bed would look plenty lonely in the barren winter months. Even after a hard freeze, you can leave the dead flowers alone as they will add interest to your winter landscape. Miscanthus spreads via rhizomes and tends to self sow, and some areas of the country consider the plant to be invasive. If this is a concern, you can prevent excess spreading through deadheading before they go to seed.
To remove old growth and promote growth that is fresh and new, miscanthus plants should be cut back in early spring just prior to the appearance of new growth. An easy way to handle the task is by gathering up the stems in each clump and wrapping a length of heavy wire around them about a foot off the ground, pulling them tight and twisting the wire. You can tie them again further up if the plants are quite tall. Then, using a fine-toothed saw, cut the stems about 6 inches up from the ground. Compost the cut stems.
Growing from Seed
Do you have patience? Growing miscanthus from seed is not normally recommended simply because it takes much too long. However, if growing from seed is your pleasure, then sow them indoors in flats with lids and in a warm area at a minimum of 60 degrees F. Make sure the soil is slightly moist. Sprouts should eventually appear, but you won’t likely be able to plant them for at least a year.
As the splendor of maiden grasses are most obvious during the season of autumn, they pair well with colorful fall plants such as chrysanthemums and asters. And despite originating from Asia, they are a natural fit with native field flowers such as Heliopsis (sunflowers), coneflowers, and goldenrod.