In the Garden grasses

Looking through the window at the garden in early winter is pleasant if the bird feeders have some food in them and some of the grasses and other plants with edible seeds are left standing.

It is always a joy to see cardinals on the feeders as well as on the snow covered ground below the feeder. They are actually ground feeders and prefer to forage for the seeds that have spilled on the ground. Sunflower seeds are their favorite food. With the high squirrel population, I find that putting a small amount of bird food out twice a day is preferable to completely filling the feeders and just fattening up a few squirrels. I have had limited success with the ‘squirrel proof’ feeders.

Cardinals are frequently associated with being messenger birds and the male’s brilliant red color offers an unsurpassed visual impact. Cardinal red is a symbolic color for Christians. Roman Catholic high priests are called cardinals. The notion that cardinals are messengers of Spirit exists across many cultures and beliefs. As a result, many things have the designation of ‘cardinal’. They include cardinal colors, cardinal directions, cardinal angels and cardinal sins. A ‘cardinal’ designation signifies importance.

Birds visit all North American native grasses and feed on seed heads on the plants and also the seeds that fall to the ground. In the spring the grass leaves are favorite nest building material for many birds.  

The view from my front window of Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’ is spectacular. There are numerous varieties of Miscanthus available that grow from two to over 6 feet tall. (A common name is Maiden grass.) This warm season, slow spreading variety with reddish-green blades will flower from August until frost. It likes full sun and ample water but will tolerate dry conditions when established.

The flowering stems remain upright through the winter and impart subtle motion and beauty to the garden. Maintenance is minimal. As plants get older than four years and form large clumps, they can begin to die out in the middle of the clump and lose some vigor. The plant can be divided into new small clumps and replanted. It is difficult to dig all of the roots out and another solution I read about is digging out the center that is dying and replacing it with good garden soil. Leave the foliage on the plant through the winter as this can protect the crowns from cold temperatures. In the spring cut the plants back to a few inches from the ground before new growth begins.

Not many birds are as spectacular as the ‘messenger’ cardinal. When a cardinal suddenly appears and seems to demand attention it is significant and each person may interpret this sign in their own fashion. Not many garden plants serve as many useful purposes as Miscanthus grass. In addition to providing food and nesting material for birds and extraordinary garden plants, the grass has been used for paper products, crafts, roof thatching and more recently biofuels.

Sharon Quale is a master gardener from central Minnesota. She may be reached at (218) 738-6060 or