It's grass salvage time again

I've been growing purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') for several years, and used to buy new plants each spring as it's not cold-hardy enough to survive our St. Louis (zone 6) winters. For the past few years I've been overwintering plants indoors under lights -- it's time for me to do this again now.


Actually, since we had our first hard freeze a few weeks ago, the purple fountain grass that was planted in the ground has all died. I always grow at least one of these in a pot each year though, and I pull it into the garage when the cold weather is imminent. This lets me work on the salvage project when I have time instead of rushing to get it done before the freeze.


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It looks pretty ratty -- is it still alive?


Yes it is, as there are signs of growth:


The first step is to pull it out of its pot:


Even though this pot is approximately 24 inches (61cm) tall, it's not deep enough for grasses -- they have deep roots -- and it gets quite root-bound.

After chopping off the roots, shaking off the extra potting mix, and cutting the top growth down a bit more I have something that I can work with:


This clump isn't too large, so I just grabbed half with each hand and pulled as hard as I could:


I needed to cut the roots a little with my pruners to help loosen the intertwined roots, but I got it pulled in two. Then it was just a matter of pulling smaller sections out. These stalks are loosely connected, so it's not difficult to pull small sections out.


I start with pretty small clumps now -- only a single stalk is needed to produce a new plant over the winter months, but I usually use two or three. Sometimes only one though.


These sweater boxes are perfect for holding 15 quart-sized pots (also called 4" pots I believe):

You couldn't find just one more black pot?

I filled each up halfway with fresh potting mix and some slow-release fertilizer (Milorganite):


I was going to reuse the older mix I salvaged from this and other pots, but since these plants will be in the house for a few months I want to reduce the chance of bringing in fungus gnat eggs and other undesirable critters. So I went with fresh mix.

Then it's just a matter of jamming each plant into its pot, trimming roots where needed (some are quite long), and filling with more soil. Planting depth isn't too critical I've found, but I usually plant a little deeper than it seems like I should to allow for settling of the soil. I can always pull these up a little bit if they seem too deep once all of the soil is in -- they're grasses, so they can take it.


Now it's just water and wait for those first signs of growth. Although I do this every year, I'm always nervous until I see some fresh blades emerging.

Initial watering was out of the sweater box so I could let them drain.

Last year I salvaged 10 of these plants -- which was the most I had ever overwintered. This year I've got 15. I wonder how many I'll save next year? I'm guessing it will be a multiple of 15 since that's how many fit in the sweater box.

I'll definitely have plenty to plant anywhere I want -- even though I've got some new planting beds next to the driveway and pond -- and probably extras to give to neighbors.

If you live in a colder climate, grow this grass, and buy it every spring, why not try overwintering it? It's quite simple and will save you lots of money during plant-buying season.

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Gerhard Bock  – (December 2, 2011 at 10:14 AM)  

Excellent system! Who would have thought that a sweater box could be so handy for anything other than--well--sweaters. I have a mishmash of pots with cold sensitive plants sitting in front of the big window in the upstairs loft and each one has a separate drip pan (left-over plastic containers). Having all of these plants in one large box would make watering and moving them around much easier. I will get myself a sweater box!

Alan @ It's not work, It's gardening!  – (December 2, 2011 at 10:27 AM)  

Gerhard: find one with as flat a bottom as possible, and square sides. I got these a few years ago, and the newer models are more rounded and therefore less useful.

Gerhard Bock  – (December 2, 2011 at 12:27 PM)  

Alan, yeah, what's up with that? Why does everything have to be rounded? Nothing against curvy, but some things need to have proper right angles!

scottweberpdx  – (December 3, 2011 at 7:23 PM)  

Nice! I actually found a variety of purple Pennisetum that's supposedly hardy in my zone (8), but I'm still doubtful about it. Perhaps I'll pry up a small wedge and try to overwinter it indoors...just in case :-)

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