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Pampas grass: Love it or hate it

Posted: January 29, 2012 - 12:12am

A comment I often get is that people have a plant too large for its space.

Trees, shrubs and even ornamental grasses can outgrow the area they are in.

One of the ornamental grasses that can quickly outgrow its area is pampas grass, a large perennial grass native to Brazil, Argentina and Chile. It grows in clumps 8 to 10 feet tall and 6 to 7 feet around. In late summer, it will produce silvery-white or pinkish silken plumes which rise to a height of 12 feet.

Because of its size, pampas grass that is planted in the wrong place can become a nightmare to deal with. It is either loved or hated.

Most of the people who want to get rid of the plant do so because it is in the wrong location, usually in an area too small for it. But pampas grass can be very attractive and functional when used correctly in the landscape. It can be a specimen plant in isolated locations on large lawns. Because it grows very rapidly, pampas grass is an excellent screening plant for sunny locations.

There are many ornamental forms of pampas grass. Some have rose or purple flowers, and others are smaller plants that grow 4 to 5 feet tall. These dwarf varieties are better suited for smaller areas. Most pampas grass is planted for its plumes, but there is one dwarf variety that has very narrow, grass-like leaves that are unusual and attractive.

One of the questions I get about pampas grass is the difference in the plumes. One variety might have small plumes, while a neighbor’s pampas grass has large plumes. The difference is that the one with the broad and full plumes are the female plants. This is due to the silky hairs covering the flowers. The male plant’s plume doesn’t have these hairs.

There is no way to tell which plant is a male or female until they produce plumes. If a female plant is desired, find someone who has a female plant and propagate the plant by dividing it.

The plumes of pampas grass are highly prized for indoor decorations. Plumes should be cut as soon as they have fully emerged. Don’t wait until the plumes are mature to bring indoors or they will shed their flowers. This can be worse than a cat or dog shedding inside the house. The plumes can be sprayed with hair spray to keep them from shedding.

When thinking pampas grass for use in the landscape, there are several factors that need to be considered. Location is the most important. Pampas grass grows best in full sun. The more sun it receives, the more plumes it will produce. Also, the leaves of pampas grass have very sharp, saw-like edges that can cut anyone who comes into contact with them, so it should be planted away from walkways or borders.

Once established, pampas grass is practically trouble-free. It has no pest or disease problems. It will grow in most soils, and is very drought-tolerant.

To obtain good growth and plume development, pampas grass should be fertilized with a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10. Use a rate of 2 pounds per 100 square feet of bed area.

There is some maintenance involved with pampas grass. To keep the plant in check, it must be pruned each spring. Pampas grass can be pruned back as far as it needs to be. I have seen pampas grass cut back to 6 or 7 inches high and survive. New leaves will emerge and the plant will grow back to its height very rapidly. Also, it is recommended that the plant be divided every three to four years. This is the best way to keep the plant in check, and there are plants that can be planted elsewhere in the landscape or given away.

When working with pampas grass, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and heavy work gloves. If the plant has been pruned back every year, shears are suitable for the pruning job, but I have seen situations where a chain saw had to be used for pruning.

Pampas grass does make an interesting addition to the landscape when it is used in the right place.

Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at cphillipshort@comcast.net, or at (706) 836-2152.

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