Native Grasses for Color, Movement and Structure

Many people have a love/hate relationship with ornamental grasses.  They know they need them in the landscape, but the loose, naturalistic look of grasses makes the garden seem untidy or a little too “wild”.  However, these attitudes are beginning to change, especially as people notice how landscape designers like Piet Oudolf incorporate native grasses throughout their designs.  Unkempt gardens are suddenly becoming vogue.    

Native grasses can be wonderful assets, bringing color, structure and varying textures to the garden. In the autumn and winter, grasses harmonize and soften the landscape providing movement with the gentlest breeze. More and more, I have been blending grasses into designs.  Grasses anchor a landscape and they are tough and resilient, too. Drifts of grasses all through the design along with mixing and matching grasses with wildflowers for structure and contrast looks more prairie-esque. 

There are new varieties of ornamental grasses to choose from every year.  Native grasses with their deep roots are suited to dry and sunny conditions, some even can thrive in wetter soils.  The following list of grasses we use here at the Arboretum in sunny borders and intermingled with wildflowers. They will be available at the spring FloraKansas: Native Plant Festival.

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, 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. ‘Blackhawks’, ‘Red October’ or ‘Rain Dance’ are nice varieties to use in the landscape. 

Big Bluestem/Turkey foot grass

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.

Northwind Switchgrass
Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

.

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.

Indiangrass Seedhead Plumes

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracillis ‘Blonde Ambition’)      

This Blue Grama Grass is apparently on steroids. I cannot believe how vigorously it grew this year, ultimately reaching two feet tall. This taller form has bright blue-green leaves that are topped by a host of eyelash-like golden yellow flowers. They wave in the wind and ambitiously last from summer into the fall and winter months.  I used it along a walkway but it is so attractive that it could stand on its own providing many months of ornamental interest. This beautiful grass was discovered by David Salman of High Country Gardens.


Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

At home in a formal planting or prairie garden, you don’t have to sacrifice anything by planting Little Bluestem. for the most part it remains upright even through the winter. The gentlest breeze puts the plant in motion. The blue-green leaves are highlighted by pink that gradually turn to rich copper, pink, and mahogany tones in the fall. It truly has a carousel of color. It provides a beautiful backdrop to perennials like coneflowers or black-eyed Susans. This graceful, low maintenance Little Bluestem will provide a form that can be used in any sunny landscape. Other garden-worthy varieties of Little Bluestem are ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Blue Heaven’.

Blue Heaven’ Little Bluestem


Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

At one time, this was the top selling native grass in the country. To see a mass planting in full bloom, you can understand why it is so popular.  The narrow leaves form a perfect fountain of green. In late summer, the fragrant airy seed heads develop.  Some liken the fragrance of the blooms to buttered popcorn. With this plant, you can get your theater popcorn fix without all the calories. It requires almost no maintenance once established. Fall color is burnt orange and rivals Little Bluestem in mass plantings. 

Prairie Dropseed with Giant Blackeyed Susan and Yellow Coneflowers

There’s really nothing like tall grasses waving in the breeze. The colors and textures change with the seasons. Don’t forget, they also provide a crucial habitat for birds and pollinators. They are in more and more of my designs because they add so much to the landscape. They don’t necessarily bloom in the same way that wildflowers do, but native ornamental grasses are both functional and visually appealing throughout the growing season and into the winter.


Native Grasses in the Garden

One of the more exciting trends in gardening today is the use of grasses, not for lawns, but as ornamental plants. Even though they do not have showy blooms, grasses can add graceful beauty to gardens and landscapes.

With long narrow leaves and upright habit of growth, grasses have a fine texture, which can provide interesting contrast to other plants in flower gardens.  They can also be used alone as accent plants in the landscape. Many grasses produce attractive seed clusters and have foliage that changes color at the end of the summer.  The dried foliage of grasses can be left standing through the winter, adding movement and texture to the landscape when garden flowers are dormant and tree branches bare.

Little Bluestem and Coneflower seedheads. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Many of the grasses being used in landscaping today have their origins in Asia and Europe. There are a number of different grasses from our prairies, however, that also make excellent ornamental plants. These native grasses possess the added advantage of being well adapted to our soil and climate.

Big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass are three tallgrass prairie species that make attractive plants in the garden or landscape. Growing 4-6 feet in height, they can be used in flower beds and borders as screens and as accent plants.  Switchgrass is the most common of these added to landscape designs because of cultivars like ‘Northwind’, ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and ‘Totem Pole’, which offer consistent height and color year after year.

Like the leaves of certain trees, the foliage of these grasses also changes color with the onset of fall.  Big bluestem is particularly noted for its reddish fall color. Each of these species also produce distinctive seed clusters that add interest to the plant toward the end of the growing season. The seed clusters are shaped like a turkey’s foot.  Indiangrass produce attractive golden plumes.  Switchgrass seed cluster are open and feathery.

Indiangrass plumes. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Sand lovegrass is another attractive taller species. It grows 3-4 feet tall and is found in sandy prairie areas.  It produces graceful arching foliage and open, airy seed heads.

Although found throughout much of the Great Plains, little bluestem and sideoats grama are two grasses that are particularly characteristic of the mixed grass prairie region of central Kansas. Both make beautiful additions to gardens and landscapes.

Little bluestem is a fine-textured, clump-forming grass that grows 2-3 feet tall.  Its landscape value is enhanced by its attractive reddish coloration late in the growing season. There are several selections that offer nice winter coloration and sturdy habit.

Beautiful little bluestem in fall. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Sideoats grama is of similar height.  The most ornamental attribute of this grass is its beautiful seed clusters.  The seeds hang gracefully from one side of the seed stalk, giving the plant a windswept look, even when the air is still. The Sioux Indians called this plant “banner-waving-in-the-wind grass.”

Prairie Dropseed is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough, that they are often planted in mass in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall, providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.

For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native grasses for granted. Yet these plants with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Switchgrass and big bluestem. Photo by Emily Weaver.






Buffalograss: Five Keys to a Successful Planting

Believe it or not, now is the time to plant buffalograss.  It is one of the few native prairie grasses that can be used for low-maintenance lawns and other turf areas.   It thrives in our clay soils and stays relatively low.

The arboretum has benefitted from the established stands of buffalograss we maintain.  The fine leaves stay a nice blue-green during the growing season, and it requires less mowing, watering, and fertilizing compared to our fescue or bluegrass lawns.

Newer varieties of buffalograss (Bowie, Cody, and Sundancer) green up faster in the spring, stay green longer in the fall, spread quickly by stolons to cover a planting area and remain shorter. They therefore require less mowing.

Once established, we have found it to be a tough, durable alternative to many cool-season grasses.  It thrives in dry, sunny conditions and even survived the extreme drought of 2012. We will be planting some additional areas to buffalograss in the coming weeks.

IMG_2191

Here are some ways to ensure a favorable outcome when planting a buffalograss lawn:

Give it sunshine.

Buffalograss needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day and a well-draining soil to grow best.  It will not grow well in low areas with periodic standing water or areas of shade.  Typically, if it is unhappy, you also will be unhappy with its overall appearance.

Weed control prior to planting.

Just like establishing a flower bed, your seeding area needs to be as weed free as possible.  I have found that several applications of Round-Up in the spring prior to planting is the best way to control weeds, especially Bermuda grass and bindweed.  I also lightly till (1/4-1/2 inch deep) the area before planting so that I have some loose soil to just cover the seed.  Keep in mind that every time the soil is tilled new weed seeds will germinate, which will need to be eradicated before spreading the seed.

Proper seed selection.

There are new forms being discovered and introduced every year, but the forms we have used at the arboretum have been Cody, Bowie, and Bison.  We seeded them in June or July at a rate of 2-3 lbs. of seed per 1000 square feet.

Proper establishment.

Buffalograss needs soil temperatures that are above 60⁰ F for germination to start.  I normally spread half the seed in one direction and then spread the other half perpendicular to the first half of seed.  I lightly rake the area and then pack it in (drive over entire planting with a mower or tractor) to get good seed-to-soil contact.

I water the whole area deeply the first watering to completely saturate the soil (just to the point water is running off) and then follow with frequent light watering until the seeds germinate in 14-21 days.  Once germination is complete, infrequent deep soakings will keep the new seedlings spreading.  Full establishment of an area from seed can be completed in the first year.

IMG_1002

Weed control after planting.

These new forms of Buffalograss perform well in our area.  In ideal conditions, they form a thick, dense lawn that can out compete weeds.  In marginal situations, weeds can become problematic, requiring weed control through herbicides or manual eradication.  We apply a broadleaf weed control in the fall to eliminate henbit, dandelions, bindweed and other broadleaf weeds.  Management of weeds in your buffalograss both before planting and the first few years after establishment will, over time, reduce future weed control, watering, mowing and overall maintenance.

I have found buffalograss to be a valuable turf for open, sunny spaces, but keep in mind that it is not a miracle grass that can solve all your lawn problems.  The natural look of this native grass should be appreciated because it is adapted to our area.    It should also be planted with the expectation that it will require less financial input and minimal work to maintain a dense, attractive turf.  For these reasons, I have found buffalograss to be a low-maintenance lawn alternative that is worth growing.