“They share the space unselfishly.” “Sedges give you the opportunity to outsmart weeds.”Roy Diblik
Why create a sedgescape
Think of the sedge or carex family as an early-season grass that looks good all summer. Not only do carex look good, they’re durable, adaptable plants that enhance the health of an entire plant community.
- Dense, fibrous root systems hold a lot water. Up to 1/3 of these roots die every year, decomposing to add moisture and nutrients to the soil and storing carbon
- Drought tolerant if you choose the right sedge for the right place
- Provide cover, nesting sites and nesting material for birds and small mammals
- Nectar and pollen source, larval host for some pollinators (Pennsylvania sedge, feeds as many as three dozen species of caterpillars)
- Many kinds of wildlife (including birds) eat the seeds
- Disease and pest issues rare
- Many are evergreen, offering winter colour
- Green in early spring when other perennials are still dormant
- Some have interesting seedheads
- No need to fertilize
- Hundreds of native sedges, one for every soil type and site condition
- No need to mow
- Deer don’t eat them (though rabbits enjoy a few varieties)
How to design using sedges
With over 2,000 varieties of sedge (200+ native to Ontario), there is a sedge for almost every ecosystem and design. Some are tiny. Others are over a metre tall. Some creep. Others clump. Some like it wet. Others like it dry. Many prefer shade, but some like sun and others thrive in either sun or shade.
Underplanting trees and shrubs with carex
Instead of mulching trees and shrubs with shredded bark, underplant with sedges as a living green mulch to cover bare soil and fill gaps. Sedges have a dense root system that holds water like a sponge, helping to keep the tree hydrated. And each year, as some of their roots die, they improve the moisture holding capacity of the soil.
Replacing a lawn with a carex matrix
Sedges make a great lawn alternative, especially in tough spots like dry shade. While a few sedges such Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pennsylvania) and Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica) work as a lawn-like groundcover (how to plant a sedge lawn), most sedges aren’t aggressive enough to out compete weeds.
For great biodiversity and resilience consider combining different sedges in a matrix design. You can experiment with a Carex community composed of several compatible sedges or interplant sedges with perennials. For more background on designing a carex community, get a copy of Roy Diblik’s wonderful book Know Maintenance Perennial Garden.
Carex matrix, foundation or base layer
In a diverse plant community or meadowscape, you can use sedges in a design that weaves in between other plants to tie everything together. This creates a more resilient design that keeps out weeds. – creating a more resilient design. This use of sedge is known as matrix, foundation or base planting.
Sedges for every situation
According to the National Heritage Information Centre species list, there are 248 species belonging to the Carex genus– the sedges, in Ontario. Here are some you may find at local or mail order nurseries. Two useful resource for choosing sedges to match site conditions are the comparison charts from Hoffman Nurseryand Prairie Moon Nursery.
|Carex appalachica||Appalachian sedge||Drought tolerant lawn substitute, native to dry woods, dense mounded tufts|
|Carex aurea||Golden sedge||Native to moist to wet shores, pale green to yellow foliage, small green blooms in June ripen to edible light brown seeds mid summer, 10-15 cm, moist to wet soil|
|Carex bicknelli||bicknell’s sedge||Native to dry prairies and slopes, drought tolerant sedge, good vertical accent, 60-90 cm|
|Carex bromoides||Brome sedge||Graceful native sedge, but not drought tolerant|
|Carex brevior||fescue sedge||Native sedge, Roy Diblik pairs with Stachys officinalis ‘hummelo’|
|Carex flacca||Blue sedge||Naturalized, drought tolerant, grows in diverse habitats, spreads by rhizomes, good ground cover|
|Carex greyi||Gray’s sedge||Short (5 cm) native sedge prefers light shade, bold texture, chestnut sized, green flowered spiked seedheads resemble a mace|
|Carex grisea||wood sedge||Native sedge, foliage lasts throughout winter, reseeds itself, tolerates wide range of soil|
|Carex laxiflora||Loose-flowered sedge||Native to rich, deciduous woods & meadows, 60-90 cm, distinctive, wide-leaved, tussock-forming sedge with pale green leaves and seed heads makes a good companion to many spring-blooming woodland wildflowers|
|Carex muskingumens||swamp sedge||Native to low woods and wet meadows, tall (60-90 cm) sedge resembles a small palm tree, drought tolerant if in partial shade. Large dense root system makes it great for rain gardens.|
|Carex pennsylvania||Pennsylvannia sedge||Native to open woodlands, colony forming drought tolerant sedge makes a good lawn substitute, good under ferns and low growing shade perennials|
|Carex plantaginea||Plaintain sedge||Native, semi-evergreen woodland sedge, great companion for native ground covers, works well in a sedge matrix|
|Carex shortia||Short’s sedge||Native architectural sedge, flower spikes stand throughout summer|
|Carex sprengelii||Long-beaked sedge||Native to moist deciduous woods, upright slightly arching, 60-90 cm, dense clumps, messy looking in June|
|Carex swanii||Downy green sedge||Native to dry to wet mesic forests, 30-90 cm, prefers consistent moisture, Roy Diblik says pairs well with salvia|
Caring for sedgescapes
Unlike traditional lawns, sedgescapes need little maintenance. In late spring, once overwintering insects have emerged from hibernation, you can cut the tufts back if you’d like. If you do, leave the cuttings beside the plants to decompose and feed the soil. You can also divide your sedgesif you want to make more plants.
- Lawn Alternative Update from the Scott Arboretumtalks about their experiments with sedges, the best performers in shade (some don’t do well interplanted with alliums!. A couple of other good posts from the Arboretum An Introduction into Caricology – The Study of Sedges
- Three native sedges made for the shade, Dyck Arboretum
- Sedges: These grasslike perennials act as dazzling stars or demure supporters in sun and shade, Roy Diblik includes good garden companions
- Sedge Lawns: A Sustainable, Low-Maintenance Alternative to Grass, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
- Role of sedges in garden design
- Sedges for lawn alternatives
- Grasses and sedges from the ground cover up
- Sick of buying mulch for the garden? The pros have a different idea.
- Native sedges for the home garden
- Southern Ontario Vascular Plant Species List Large list of native sedges of Ontario
- A Brief Overview of the Sixty Common or Uncommon Sedges (Carex sp.) of Hamilton/Halton/Peel