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Growing Bunny Tails from seed

OMG THEY'RE CUTE! Growing Bunny Tails from Seed

We might be weird, but we're absolutely smitten with the easy-to-grow ornamental grass known as "bunny tails." Wait, no. We're not weird. At least, not for that reason. Anybody who wouldn't fall in love with this compact annual ornamental, with it's tiny, fluffy seed heads, is probably the type of person who kicks puppies and would knock an ice cream cone from a toddler's sticky hands.

Ornamental grasses have become popular in residential and commercial landscaping, but with miniature species such as Lagurus ovatus, container and patio gardeners too can enjoy the varied eye-catching textures, colors, and silhouettes that blur the boundaries between formal and natural garden designs.

If you have children and they're bugging you for a pet, make them grow bunny tails instead. They're easy to care for, they're fuzzy, and aside from the occasional dirt ball one might find after an overly-enthusiastic gardening session, they don't leave turds in the yard.

At least the plants won't. We can't vouch for your kids.

A Little Background on Bunny Tails

Also known as Turk's head grass and hare's tail grass, L. ovatus is a member of the expansive Poaceae (true monocot grass) family. It's larger cousin, "red bunny tails," is a different species bearing the taxonomic name Pennisetum messiacum.

The bunny tails we're following down the rabbit hole, Lagurus ovatus, bear fluffy white seed heads that slowly become a rich cream to tan as they turn brown at the end of the growing season.

Bunny tails are a Mediterranean species, though they've naturalized throughout much of the world. In some places, as is the case with many other species of ornamental grasses, they're considered invasive due to their adaptability to various climates and their ease of reproducing. Go figure; they are bunnies, after all.

Bunny Tails in the Garden

Though bunny tails—unlike most ornamental grasses—are annuals and require replanting each year, their fairly rapid growth and diminutive size allow you to grow a tidy, compact mound each season.

Add them to your xeriscaping scheme, or along walkways where you can reach down and touch the soft, velvety leaves and silky-soft, fluffy heads. Watch the panicles turn from spring green to tan, matched in pace and color by the foliage. There's something comforting about the perseverance of bunny ears’ "flowers" sticking around when everything else is closing up shop for the season.

You'll want to grow them in small clusters for the best "clumping" effect, given that each seed produces only a few leaves and heads.

USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 10

Sunlight Requirements: Full sun; bunny tails thrive in heat and sunshine. Mature plants, particularly those kept in containers, will tolerate light or afternoon shade.

Soil Preferences: Lagurus ovatus seems to prefer soil on the sandy side, but any well-draining substrate will do).

pH: Neutral (6.5 to 7.5)

Watering Requirements: Moderate to light. Bunny tails are drought-resistant. Allow the soil around them to dry in between watering once they've passed the seedling stage.

Plant Height: 8" to 20"

Plant Width: 12" to 16"

Flowers: The "tails" are actually clusters of tiny flowers called panicles growing up to 2.5" long. They're a pale green, maturing into glowing white before gaining a creamy beige tint at the end of the growth cycle. Bunny tails, as their name implies, are oval in shape but often somewhat tapered. Pretty much just go look at a rabbit's butt, and you'll know what we're talking about. Pat the bunny, and you're also up to speed on L. ovatus' soft, fluffy texture.

Foliage: Long, narrow, pointed leaves are gray-green and velvety, and are more supple than leaves belonging to many other ornamental grasses.

Bloom Period: Late spring through midsummer; after the panicles go to seed, they tend to become ragged by the wind.

Pests & Diseases: Bunny tails aren't particularly prone to pests or diseases.

Maintenance: Bunny tails is low-maintenance. Deadhead panicles before the seeds begin to loosen to prevent naturalization and remove faded plants after the first fall frost so you can start anew in spring.

Harvesting: Snip entire stems, at any stage of maturity, for floral displays or crafts. Hang them, inverted, to dry in a well-ventilated area.

Growing Bunny Tails from Seed

As we mentioned above, we recommend planting about a dozen seeds (give or take) in each planting location or 4" by 4" plastic seedling pot. You can grow them in smaller cell-type trays (with fewer seeds per cell, of course) and combine the plants from each cell into a singular area, but overcrowding seeds will reduce germination rates and seedling vigor.

Amy Ellis at the home and lifestyle blog Stow and Tell has some great tips on growing different ornamental grasses from seed, and suggests that gardeners try making collars out of larger plastic pots and sinking them around the sites you've chosen for your grass clumps. We recommend leaving a portion of the collar above ground. This will help keep the seeds from straying from their spot in wet weather. As the seedlings grow, you can remove the collars. Since bunny tails reproduce from seed, the collars won't prevent them from running (hopping?) amok, but they do help contain plants that rapidly reproduce through rhizomes.

Direct Sow:  Plant your bunny tails seeds after all danger of frost has passed, and the soil temperature has reached 70°F.

Start Indoors: Plant seeds in a well-drained substrate 4-6 weeks before your area's last frost date. Make sure you use a fluorescent grow light above your seedlings or put them in a bright window; bunny tails need lots of light to get going.

Seed Depth: 1/4"

Seed/Plant Spacing: Plant clusters of seeds (or emergent seedlings) 10" to 12" apart.

Germination: 10 to 14 days

Protect your bunny tail seeds from heavy spring rains or overzealous hose spraying until the plants are well-established. Once your indoor starts have come up and shed their husks, and the soil has warmed, you can transplant them outdoors.

How to Dye Bunny Tails

Before we get started with tips for using bunny tails in floral design and craft projects, we want to tell you just how easy it is to dye them. It's easier than dying Easter eggs since bunny tails have their own built-in dipping sticks. We found this method on the Olive Us blog, which doesn't appear to be maintained anymore but as of this post, still contains a charming little video with these step-by-step instructions:

  1. Fill jars or glasses with water
  2. Add food coloring (as much or as little as you'd like)
  3. Dip bunny tails and let them soak for 5 minutes
  4. Remove and let drain
  5. Hang upside-down from their stems until they're dry (be sure to place an absorbent towel underneath unless you want your craft area to look like Jackson Pollock exploded.)

We haven't experimented with bleaching bunny tails, but we assume you can use the same approach using diluted bleach. Be sure to supervise the kiddies when you're playing with nasty chemicals.

Get Crafty with Bunny Tails

If you're drawn to gardening, you're probably a creative sort of person. We know you are.

Maybe, in addition to landscape design, you're also a budding chef. Or you're getting into making natural soaps, or harvesting and using medicinal herbs.

Gardening might inspire you to make booze infusions or to just drink box wine and daydream in your yard after a long day in the dirt. Whatever, it's all good! But those who are into crafts might look at these fluffy grasses and come up with all sorts of ideas. We came up with these:

  • Substitute bunny tails for those ubiquitous colorful puffy pom poms you find in craft stores for projects suggested on this DIY website.  
  • Hang them around the perimeter of your car's headliner for a flashback to the Cheech and Chong movies from the '70s.
  • Glue them to a bodysuit for your next trip to Burning Man.
  • Make miniature good luck charms (i.e. rabbit's feet)
  • Grow an enormous crop of them and, as a prank, blow them into your best friend's mail slot with a leafblower, feeding them from a plastic bag. (This also works with toilet paper.) In keeping with the craft theme, dye your bunny tails first.

While we typically advise our readers to consult with their doctors before using a particular plant, this time we think you might want to check in with your attorney.

Bunny Tails and Floral Design

Bunny tails, harvested while dry or in the green stages, can be incorporated into wildflower mixes or as standalone displays. We found a stunning bouquet created with pink bunny tails and caspia, and we love the pink-and-silver look. We imagine our baby's breath flowers would make the perfect stand-in for caspia.

We also think they'd look great with lavender spears, or bundled with wild barley stems or other large-seed grasses.

Stick a bunch of multicolor bunny tails in vases for children's parties or Easter, or dye them to match your wedding colors; the same company that matches shoe and dress colors might be able to help.

It's difficult to call out specific combinations when we're exploring floral design. There are just too many options, and given that bunny's tails are great candidates for dyeing, there's no limit to how creative you can get.

Reach Out and Touch Seed Needs

Gardening should be a multisensory experience. Beyond vivid colors, captivating aromas, and fresh crisp flavors, there's the feel of damp, crumbly soil, the satin textures of petals, and the crunch/squish of accidentally stepping on snails. (Hey, we've gotta take the good with the bad, right?) Bunny tails are a visual and tactile treat, whether you're growing them for show or to have something crafty to do on a rainy afternoon.

We'd love to hear from you if you come up with some off-the-wall (or, fine, practical if you must) uses for Lagurus ovatus, especially if they involve (harmless) guerilla art. but remember: If there aren't pictures, it didn't happen.
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