Planting grasses: Some native choices are a great addition to gardens

September 21, 2015

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.

Grasses 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.

Many 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.

Fortunately, an increasing number of selections of native species are now available, some shorter, some more colorful, some more tidy.

"These 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 particularly attractive."

Because 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.

Most 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.

Once 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.

For 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 less light.

Here 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.


Little 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.

Switch 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.

Prairie 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," Currey says.

Tufted 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.

Sideoats 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.


Pennsylvania 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.

Palm 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.

Fox 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.



Associated Press