the straight species of prairie dropseed can find
a place in many gardens, growing only 24 to 36
inches high and wide with a mound of fine-textured
foliage that turns golden-orange in fall.
are glorious as summer ripens into fall, with their
leaves and stalks turned to gold, copper or red and
their banners of seeds fluttering in the wind.
of the best ornamental grasses are Midwestern natives,
the backbone of the prairie. But given the limited space
and well-groomed aesthetic of most city and suburban
yards, it can be hard for wild-hearted native grasses to
fit in. Some species top 7 feet and can flop untidily
when theyíre growing all alone, without the support of
a few thousand other plants in a prairie.
an increasing number of selections of native species are
now available, some shorter, some more colorful, some
arenít hybrids," says Mary Meyer, a professor and
extension horticulturist for the University of Minnesota
who runs grass trials at the Minnesota Landscape
Arboretum. "Theyíre variations that have come
about naturally, and have been selected because they are
the selected cultivars offer a range of sizes and more
predictable performance, she says, they can encourage
gardeners to plant native grasses in gardens. Straight
species of more native grasses are becoming available,
too, giving gardeners more choices.
grasses need full sun, and most Midwestern species
require very well-drained soil, says Shannon Currey,
marketing director for Hoffman Nursery, a wholesale
grower in North Carolina that specializes in ornamental
grasses. Most are warm-season grasses, meaning they will
be slower to start growing in spring than the
cool-season grass species in your lawn.
theyíre established, prairie grasses prefer to live on
rainfall, so they arenít good companions for
perennials that you will be watering. Instead, find them
a sunny spot among drought-tolerant natives such as
black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed and goldenrod or other
tough perennials such as Russian sage.
shadier spots, consider native sedges ó shorter plants
that arenít technically grasses, but have a similar
texture. Since they usually come from wetlands or
woodlands, they often can be happy with more moisture or
are some native grasses and sedges, including good
cultivars, to consider. Theyíre good for large pots,
too: "Grasses do really well in containers as long
as they have good drainage," Currey says.
bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium): This extremely
drought-tolerant grass, 3 to 3 Ĺ-feet tall with fine
foliage that tints many roadsides purple-blue in late
summer, is becoming ever more popular in gardens.
Carousel, a selection from the Chicagoland Grows Plant
Introduction Program, is especially compact and upright,
reaching 2 Ĺ feet tall. Blue Heaven (Schizachyrium
scoparium MinnBlueA), introduced by the University of
Minnesota, is a little taller (3 feet) and has
especially rich burgundy fall color, Meyer says. Other
cultivars include The Blues and Prairie Blues, which
have good fall color but are somewhat inclined to flop.
grass (Panicum virgatum): "Switch grasses are real
workhorses," Currey says ó adaptable to a wide
range of soil, pH and moisture. The species and
selections vary from 3 to 7 feet high, with seed heads
that turn reddish before they turn gold. Tall and
assertive, switch grasses can create structure in the
garden, Currey adds. Northwind is a top cultivar,
particularly narrow and upright and growing to about 4
feet tall (seed heads will add about another foot to
this and all switch grasses listed here). Northwind,
introduced by Roy Diblik at Northwind Perennial Farm in
Burlington, Wis., was the Perennial Plant Associationís
2014 Plant of the Year. Heavy Metal is also relatively
upright, growing to 4 feet with foliage that is silvery
blue-green. Shenandoah is 3 feet tall and has a striking
burgundy fall color that turns relatively early. Cape
Breeze, a newer, more compact selection growing 2 to 2
Ĺ feet tall, has a looser, fluffier habit, Currey says.
Ruby Ribbons and Hot Rod have good red fall color, Meyer
says, and are relatively short, just 3 feet or so.
dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis): Even the straight
species of prairie dropseed can find a place in many
gardens, growing only 24 to 36 inches high and wide with
a mound of fine-textured foliage that turns
golden-orange in fall. The flowers are held high above
the foliage on slender stems and ripen into a
see-through cloud of delicate seeds. Tara, another
selection from Diblik, is a dwarf cultivar, with a mound
of foliage just a foot high. "Itís a cute
plant," says Currey. "Itís a little more
upright. Itís perky." Try it among sun-loving
perennials, she suggests, or even as a ground cover in a
place where it wonít get walked on. Be aware, though,
that prairie dropseed may take three years or so to
reach its full size. "It calls for patience,"
hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa): This is one of the
few grasses that can handle part shade. Itís also a
cool-season grass, growing most vigorously in spring and
fall. The tuft of foliage may grow only 16 to 18 inches
high and wide, but the airy seed heads grow on stalks
that may reach 4 feet. "Itís great for filling in
between larger perennials," Currey says.
grama (Bouteloua curtipendula): Neil Diboll of Prairie
Nursery in Westfield, Wis., recommends this relatively
short grass, notable for its distinctive seed heads,
which grow up the side of 3-foot stalks. The foliage
grows in a dense clump 12 to 18 inches tall, and turns
golden brown in autumn.
sedge (Carex pensylvanica): Yes, itís an Illinois
native, despite the name. This sedge, about Ĺ to 1 foot
tall, appears very grasslike, with a mound of silky,
fine leaves that are a lovely contrast to broad-leaved
shade plants such as hostas, Siberian bugloss and wild
ginger. It needs part to full shade, Currey says, and
can often tolerate even the dry shade under trees. If itís
in the right site, it will spread slowly, but Meyer
warns that it will need to be weeded regularly since itís
not aggressive enough to outcompete non-native plants.
sedge (Carex muskingumensis): This sedge, which does
well in full sun to part shade, grows 30 to 36 inches
tall with upright tufts of airy leaves that can give it
a whimsical look. "Itís very tough," Meyer
says, and can tolerate wet to dry soils. It has a large,
dense root system, which makes it a great candidate for
a rain garden (a garden designed for and able to handle
ample rainfall and/or stormwater runoff in its design
and plant selection). It may self-seed. Try it in a
container for a tropical look from an Illinois plant.
sedge (Carex vulpinoidea): Diboll recommends this
wetland sedge for rain gardens. Growing 1 foot to 3 feet
tall, it has an attractive mound of fine-textured
arching foliage that starts the season green and turns
bronze to brown. Fox sedge needs full sun but moist to
wet soil, making it a good companion for perennials that
will be watered regularly.