Caring for ornamental zebra grass

Every year I post this statement on Facebook: "My zebra is dead!" Every year someone replies something like "OMG, I'm so sorry!" I always wonder 'what the heck do they think I'm raising out here?' lol Truth is, my Zebra grass lives a long and wonderful life every year. It's one of the main focus points in my large yard and is estimated to be about 20 years old.

Large clump of ornamental grass (zebra grass)

Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') is a species of flowering plant in the grass family. It is an herbaceous perennial grass that grows up to 8 feet in height! It starts as a single stalk but spreads through underground rhizomes and grows into a dense clump. 

I have a few different varieties in my clump of grasses, but to simplify reading (and writing) this, I'm just going to refer to the whole thing as zebra grass for this post. The care is the same for most varieties anyway!

Caring for zebra grass

Ornamental grasses can be bought as plants from a nursery or home improvement store or started from seed. I have never started them from seed but I can tell you from experience that they will seed themselves! If you do start from seed you only need to plant a few per clump. Since it spreads outwards through underground rhizomes, it will only take a few years till you have a dense clump.

In the early spring it's sadly cut down and the stubs are raked to remove debris. It's lovingly watered and a few weeks later I always get excited when the first green shoots start to emerge. 

a perennial, Zebra grass dies off yearly

Through the growing season it provides shelter from Hawks and a playground for about 30 chickens and guineas. I hunt for guinea eggs in it. It provides shade from the summer sun and some shelter from the rains. It also hides the access for the backup septic tank.

I have 2 different varieties growing and the coloring is different when green, but they turn exactly the same way in fall. 

They all have these pretty tops. These tops contain the seeds and stand tall above the clumps of grasses. This allows the wind to pick up the seed and blow it around. Don't be surprised if you see ornamental grasses starting to grow at other places on your property! 

Zebra grass tops, seed heads

Zebra grass seeds blow absolutely every where, but the clumps multiplies all by themselves too. The clump of grass will expand outwards each year. Eventually the inside of the clump will start to die off and you'll be left with a ring of grasses. You won't be able to tell when they're growing, but the inside will be bare.

For this reason you'll want to split your clumps every few years. This is also a great way to get more zebra grasses to plant in different places! You'll be splitting off small clumps of plants from the parent stock, also called propagating.

Propagating zebra grass

The easiest and most effective way to split these ornamental grasses is through simple division. You will need the parent plant and either some pots to put the divided clumps of grass in, or places to move the new plants to. 

The best time of the year to divide them is in the spring, just before the new growth emerges. When spring arrives you can divide them at any time as long as they are not well into putting out new growth. The earlier the better. 

To divide them simply dig up the root mass and start dividing it into pieces. The divisions do not have to be to be very large. It’s difficult to describe, but as long as you have some roots, the new plant is likely to grow. I try to make my clumps about 3" across.

If you have small young plants you can probably just tear the root mass apart with your hands, but if the root mass is very big then you are going to need some tools. The larger and older the clumps are, the harder they are to divide! 

The root mass on older plants is much larger and probably more dense than you'll expect and you'll really need some muscle to tear the clumps apart. Or tools. Don't be afraid to make a few cuts to get the clump apart!

I personally have divided many clumps of ornamental grasses, but this is my first year dividing the massive 20 year old clump of grasses in the first picture! I'm sure I can do it, it's just going to take some tie and strength. But if I can learn how to prune Weeping Cherry trees and grapevines I can certainly divide a mammoth grass clump! 


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