Native grasses are at their best right now. They are in full plumage. They are changing color from green to bold reds, yellows, and oranges. They have reached their full height. They are spectacular.
I can’t imagine the view atop a rise looking over the expanse of the Great Plains in its unbroken state – a “sea of grass” as far as you could see. It must have been awe inspiring. Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.
Within these waves of gold and green, three grasses stood out from the rest.
Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
This is the king of the prairie grasses, reaching to the skies and sending its roots deep. It perseveres in tallgrass prairies. The vertical stems stand firmly and sway with only a slight breeze and change vibrantly in the fall to shades of red and orange. The three-pronged seed heads resemble a turkey’s foot, hence its other name “Turkey Foot Grass”. Plant it in full sun in a medium to moist soil.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass. These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape. They add structure, texture and movement. For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil. It is very drought tolerant. Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.
Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
The yellow/tan plumes and vase-shaped habit make this grass easy to recognize in prairies. I use them in naturalistic plantings or formal plantings. Give them space, because mature plants can be five feet across the top. It grows best in a medium to dry soil and all-day sun. Heavy clay soils make it robust, but it thrives in many different soil types.
These native grasses are the backbone of the tallgrass prairie. They are resilient because their roots go deep making them drought tolerant and tough. They are garden-worthy and deserve a place in the landscape. Give them a try. You will be rewarded for many years to come.
Check out this article in Fine Gardening that I wrote several years ago for more information on other native grasses.
Our prairie is getting all grown up. The 12-acre prairie reconstruction at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains known as the Prairie Window Project is reaching a noticeably new stage of maturity in its sixth year of growth. Deep root systems have developed to support a matrix of full-size grasses, a variety of colorful wildflowers, and a bounty of seed heads. For the first time, it looks like and gives the feel of being a REAL prairie.
Big bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project
I can’t help but reflect on its numerous developmental similarities to those of my 14-year old son, Henry. Each involved preparation and planning, was nurtured with grand hopes and dreams, and required a significant investment of time and economic resources to shepherd them to their current state of maturation. Just as many lessons of my childhood and a rich array of ancestral influences have contributed to Henry’s development, the arboretum’s tallgrass youngster was conceived only after years of studying and modeling the local prairies of South Central Kansas and collecting seeds from over 170 plant species.
I even poignantly recognize that many of our Marion County prairie remnant seed sources near Lehigh laden with bluestem, blazing star, blue salvia, and goldenrod were the same prairies where my Grandpa Henry decades ago introduced me to prairie wonders such as rolling vistas of the Flint Hills, scissor-tailed flycatchers, and ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. It gives me great comfort to know that the remains of dozens of my ancestors in Marion County cemeteries, and maybe even mine someday, will be cycled through the 10-foot deep root systems of big bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass many times over in the coming millennia.
Button blazing star and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project
Henry and the Prairie Window Project have each benefited greatly from the work and support of many others along with some fortunate helpings of luck. They are beneficiaries of the nutrient-rich soils of Kansas, and both have surpassed me in height this fall. They have plenty of room to grow in complexity, mature and diversify, and I am coming to terms with the fact that most of my influence to shape these two beings has already been given. I marvel at what they have become in their young lives, and with great anticipation I will be watching what new developments are to come.
For more information on prairie restoration and native plants, please explore our website.