Garden Q&A: The traffic-stopping ornamental grass

For The Baltimore Sun

I am blown away by a purplish ornamental grass that I drive by daily. Then the maples nearby turned bright red, and it was like wow! What is this?

Pink muhly grass can cause traffic jams. It will turn heads for 6 to 8 weeks in the fall, especially when sun and morning mist turn the airy inflorescence into pink/purple pyrotechnics. Muhlenbergia capillaris is a soft clumping grass, growing to 3 feet tall and just as wide. The most ornamental of the many muhly species, its basal foliage is dark green and glossy. It does best in full sun. Light shade can be tolerated but reduces flowering. Muhly also tolerates many soil types, moderate drought and salt spray. This native U.S. grass occurs from the Gulf to Massachusetts, but grows best in zones 6-9 of the USDA Plant Hardiness map

My friend gave me some ironweed seeds. Apparently they require something called a cold treatment. What does that mean? Can I do that myself?

Some seeds need a period of chill/cold, called stratification, to improve germination. It mimics a cold winter period. This is a plant’s survival strategy, so that its seeds are not fooled into sprouting during a temporary warm spell and then perish in returning winter temperatures. You can provide this cold treatment artificially by putting the seed packet in a zip-lock bag and storing it in your refrigerator for a minimum of 2 to 3 months. You can also plant directly into the ground in the fall and let nature provide the usual cold treatment. Sow ironweed thickly; germination rates for this native wildflower are relatively low.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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