Sedges are low-maintenance option

February 8, 2018 GMT

Some of the newest ornamental grasses on the market are not grasses at all, they are sedges. When we hear the word sedge we might think of weeds or water and not ornamental plants.

Weeds may come to mind because of yellow nutsedge (Cyperus species). This is a difficult-to-control weed often found in lawns and gardens. However, sedges sold for planting in gardens and landscapes are of the Carex species, and are sold as Carex.

Water might come to mind because sedges commonly grow in riparian (water edge) areas. Some gardeners assume these plants are being sold for water gardens, but this is not true. A few sedges are even proving to be drought-tolerant, helping gardeners conserve water.

Garden sedges, or Carex, are sold and used like ornamental grasses. Most are lower-growing than true grasses, so if you are looking for a 1- to 3-foot-tall plant instead of a 3- to 8-foot-tall plant, consider Carex.

Unlike true grasses, most Carex are grown for their foliage. While they do flower, few have ornamental seed heads like the plumes of grasses. Like many grasses, sedges are low-maintenance plants needing little care once established, and they establish quickly.

The most common Carex being sold include gray sedge, Carex grayii; palm sedge, C. muskingumensis; brown fox sedge, C. vulpinoides; and Ice Dance sedge; C. morrowii Ice Dance.

The Great Plants for the Great Plains program ornamental grass for this year is bristleleaf sedge, Carex eburnea. The goal of the Great Plants program is to bring superior ornamental landscape plants into gardens to meet the challenging growing conditions of the Great Plains.

Bristleleaf sedge has soft, thread-like, green leaves that grow in small clumps that are 6 to 10 inches tall and as wide. It grows in part shade to full sun, and can tolerate heavy shade. While this sedge tolerates drier, sandier soils, it performs best with consistent moisture.

Since most Carex will tolerate short periods of standing water, and some tolerate dry conditions once established, they have become popular for growing in the bottoms of rain gardens.

Rain gardens are bowl-shaped gardens with a low berm on three sides. These gardens are located where they will catch and soak in rainwater, such as from a roof downspout.

Rain gardens make the best use of rainfall when we receive it. They help conserve water and reduce stormwater runoff from a property. Less runoff means fewer pollutants washing into streams, rivers and lakes during storm events.

A correctly designed and installed rain garden might have standing water for up to 48 hours after a rainfall. However, these gardens can be dry for long periods in between rainfall and therefore drought-tolerant plants are needed.

These wet conditions followed by dry conditions have made Carex popular rain garden plants. Whether you have a rain garden or not, consider planting Carex to add plant diversity to your landscape.