Composting in Place

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Late winter is one of my favorite times to work in the garden. This afternoon I enjoyed one of those days. The temperature was just right (55-degrees); The sun was shining after a solid week of rainy days; and I was engaged in a productive yet meditative task. I cut back a small stand of ornamental grasses: three pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), a beautiful native species, and one pampas grass (Cortaderia selloanna), a classic ornamental that grows fast and gets big.

Grasses generally require full sun and these two types are no exception. Well-drained soil is also a plus; a gentle sloping property like mine is perfect. These grasses are drought tolerant once established and deer resistant.

It is important to cut the dried ornamental grasses down to 4 to 6 inches from the ground annually in late winter. This affords new shoots the warmth of sunlight and better air circulation. The dried stalks are excellent brown additions to a compost pile, but I decided to practice “composting in place” instead.

grasses compost tools.jpg
I used a pair of freshly-sharpened manual scissor sheers to cut the dried stalks a few inches off the ground; and hand pruners to snip the stalks into small pieces which I let be where they fell atop the soil. This practice is called composting in place. Photo by A. Laine.

Highlights of Pink Muhly Grass

Pink Muhly Grass, four feet tall at maturity, is showy in the fall, at a time when flowers on many other plants have faded. It’s flower stalks feature wispy plumes of dark pink that gracefully sway with a breeze. Come winter the stalks fade to tan as do the grassy parts.

Highlights of Pampas Grass

Pampas grass can grow 6 to 10 feet tall and are hardy to Zone 7b. Mine was expanding almost too quickly when an unusually long cold spell in winter 2017 effectively set it back a few years in size. I have read that they are difficult to remove once established, so it may have been a blessing! It’s leaves are sturdy, flat and green. It’s flower is a light tan plume atop a tough tan stalk.

Sources and Additional Reading

Maintaining ornamental grasses:

Pampas Grass:

Pink Muhly Grass: