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

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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.


Inspiring Landscapers

This Saturday, February 24 at our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium, 10 inspiring landscapers will share their native plant gardening stories.

 

A common thread of these landscapers/gardeners (I use these words interchangeably) is that they have each uniquely contributed to my approach and style of landscaping over the years. I have been drawn to their passion for gardening and landscaping. They are botanists, ecologists, master gardeners, landscape artists, and inquisitive students of gardening. Most of them have had successful careers in areas other than landscaping. Yet each considers landscaping a labor of love and finds great joy in working with plants that shape the landscapes around them. Their enthusiasm is infectious. I look forward to hearing their brief prepared stories with photos all being told in a one day symposium format where they can also answer questions. While it is difficult to fit these individuals into specific landscaping categories, I have generally ordered them in speaking sequence from wild and ecological to horticultural and manicured.

I won’t have time to give them each the full and flowery introduction that they deserve. But I will say a bit about their styles and approaches that have influenced me over the last 25+ years.

The Speakers

 

Dwight Platt was my major professor at Bethel College where I studied biology and environmental studies in the early 90s. He introduced me to Lorna Harder, then curator for natural history at the Kauffman Museum. The two of them were responsible for developing the oldest prairie reconstruction in Kansas on the museum grounds, and I was able to serve as a prairie intern with them before graduating. My appreciation for the diverse ecology of the prairie and how prairie plants can be incorporated into landscaping started with them. They inspired me to pursue further education in ecological restoration and landscape architecture.

Kauffman Museum Prairie

Dwight and Lorna’s home landscapes utilize many native plants with a focus on attracting biological diversity to those landscapes. Bob Simmons carries a similar approach. His intimate knowledge of host plants and what butterflies they attract guides his approach to landscaping as well. All three of these folks are passionate knowledge seekers of the birds and butterflies around them. They are regular attendees of annual bird and butterfly counts in Harvey County that contribute to citizen science.

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar on Host Plant

My work at Dyck Arboretum with the Earth Partnership for School (EPS) Program has opened my eyes to the power that native landscaping can have inspiring children. Developing prairie gardens on school grounds offers fun learning opportunities through hands-on, project-based learning. High school science teachers Jay Super (Maize) and Denise Scribner (Goddard) are award-winning educators that have displayed how prairie gardening offers a useful learning tool for their students.

Goddard Eisenhower High School Prairie Garden

Locally grown food is important to our health and well-being and I have long been intrigued by the mixing of vegetables and native plant gardens in our landscapes. The Sand Creek Community Garden in N. Newton has been an example for me in recent years of how growing vegetables and tending native prairie gardens are mutually beneficial. Attracting pollinators and insect predators can only help food plots and they certainly add interest to gardening experience as well. Duane Friesen was the main organizer of this community garden seen as one of the best in Kansas. And as my father-in-law, Duane has also taught me much of what I know about growing vegetables. Joanna Fenton Friesen has a real eye for designing beautiful gardens with native plants and has been an organizer for the perennial flower beds at the community garden. They each have inspiring home landscapes with vegetables and native plants as well.

Sand Creek Community Garden

Pam Paulsen, Reno County Horticulture Extension Agent, is one of the top education resources in Kansas and she has immense knowledge about vegetable gardening, pollinators, and natural pest management. She is also an avid student of the prairie and a great photographer.

Aesthetically arranging native plants in organized assemblages adds enjoyment to landscaping. It also makes native plant gardening, often seen as unkept and weedy, more palatable to the general public. My colleague, Scott Vogt, has a horticulture degree and has helped influence me in this regard by encouraging plantings in groupings. Duane and Joanna with their eyes for aesthetics and surrounding native gardens with edging and mulched trails have also been influential.

A Clumped Planting at Dyck Arboretum.

Two gardens that I have enjoyed visiting in recent years have been the home landscapes designed and tended by Laura Knight (Wichita) and Lenora Larson (Paola). Their displays of not only native plants, but adaptable perennials and annuals too have expanded my understanding and appreciation for sustainable landscaping. They also have an appreciation for art in the garden, beautiful walking paths, water features, and weeding – all elements that enhance the garden aesthetic experience. Lenora also pays close attention to choosing plants that offer either nectar or food for insects.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

I hope you will join us Saturday and experience even a fraction of the inspiration that I have received from these gardeners and landscapers.