The Grass Is Greener When You Grow Natives

Switch grass, pink muhly and broomsedge are just a few of the grasses native to the United States that provide food, nesting materials or cover for wildlife

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Jun 01, 2003
A GOLDFINCH tussles with a stalk of switch grass in my backyard, jumping up and down as it struggles to eat the tiny seeds. Later in the evening, I see a marsh rabbit nibbling the edges of some pink muhly grasses. Just before dark, a covey of quail scatter out from under a patch of broomsedge, darting across my driveway and into the woods.

Switch grass, pink muhly and broomsedge are just a few of the grasses native to the United States that provide food, nesting materials or cover for wildlife. Because they're also beautiful plants that thrive with minimal care, more and more people across the country are turning to these North American originals when landscaping homes and gardens.

Some homeowners, like Keith Duncan, are using natives for their lawns. "Both my front and back yards have buffalo grass," says Duncan, a range scientist at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center in the town of Artesia. Buffalo grass is considered better for the environment than traditional lawns because it requires far less water and nutrients and no pesticides. "I never spray and hardly ever fertilize," says Duncan.

Other people, like Neil Diboll, are mixing wild grasses with flowers when planting meadows or miniature "pocket" prairies. "The grasses significantly reduce the maintenance," says Diboll, a pioneer in landscaping with natives who owns the Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin.

Still other gardeners, like me, are setting out grasses for their ornamental effect. Besides feeding and sheltering wildlife around my Charleston, South Carolina, home, these attractive natives also add year-round color--from spring blues and greens to autumn golds and burgundies to winter tans.

Ornamentals are a great way to get started with indigenous grasses. Diboll's favorites are prairie dropseed and little bluestem. A two-foot-high plant found in the East and Midwest, prairie dropseed has cascading emerald green foliage in summer and turns pumpkin orange by Halloween. Sparrows and juncos love to eat its seeds. Little bluestem is a waist-high grass native found east of Nevada. Almost turquoise during the warmer months, it deepens to cinnamon red with the first frost. Butterfly caterpillars often overwinter at the base of bluestem clumps. Turkeys, doves and many other species of birds devour the seeds.

Another widespread native ornamental is Indian grass. Together with switch grass and big and little bluestem, they were the original "big four" of the tallgrass prairie. They also grew in the East, where significant grasslands were once scattered from New England deep into the South. Today, switch grass and bluestem are still found throughout much of the country, and they are wonderful plants for wildlife. Switch grass is especially valuable as winter cover for birds and small mammals because it stays upright even during heavy snow or sleet. Two colorful varieties are Heavy Metal and Haense Herms.

Other grasses for eastern gardens include river oats (also called wild oats or inland sea oats), bent awn plume grass, eastern gamma grass, purple-top, brushy bluestem and split beard bluestem. Some western varieties are Indian rice grass, June grass, sideoats gramma, Canada wild rye, silver bluestem and many different muhly (Muhlenbergia) grasses such as bamboo muhly, bull grass and Lindheimer muhly.

In California, more than 300 species of natives once grew in immense grasslands. Carol Bornstein, director of horticulture for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, suggests Californians try purple, nodding and foothills needle grasses; deer grass; California fescue; and a variety of wild rye called Canyon Prince. Florida also had extensive prairies at one time. Some possibilities there are broomsedge, lopsided Indian grass, Florida gamma grass and wiregrass or pineland threeawn.

Ornamental natives should be cared for like other perennials. They do best when planted in early spring. Add a two- to three-inch-thick layer of mulch, and water regularly until well established. Since most of these grasses evolved with periodic burning or grazing, the best way to keep them healthy is to cut them to the ground once a year, usually in early March. This gets rid of the old growth and allows them to come back stronger.

Often it is a short step from growing grasses as ornamentals to creating a small meadow or prairie. Although most people focus on wildflowers when planning a meadow, Diboll suggests planting a 50–50 ratio of perennial grasses and wildflowers. "Grasses have fibrous root systems that squeeze out weeds," he explains. Plus the grasses help hold moisture for the flowers. Many grasses are also incredibly long-lived. "I started some little bluestem back in 1974," Diboll says, "and the plants are still going strong."

When selecting grasses for a meadow, you'll need to determine the plants' growth habits. There are two broad categories. Bunch grasses, such as little bluestem, grow from a circle and leave spaces between clumps where wildflowers can grow. Mat-forming or running grasses spread out to form a layer of sod, choking out all but the toughest wildflowers.

Bunch grasses are also often better for wildlife. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, biologists discovered that mat-forming meadow fescue, a non-native, makes travel through a field difficult for meadow voles and other small mammals. According to Jenny Beeler, a National Park Service biologist who helped run the study, native bunch grasses leave spaces where ground- nesting birds can put their nests and other wildlife can take a dust bath.

Some of the best bunch grasses for wildflower meadows include little bluestem, prairie dropseed, Indian grass, blue gramma and sideoats gramma. Blue gramma is also sometimes planted as an informal lawn, with or without the wildflowers. Blue-green in color, this species of grass is found naturally from the Ohio River westward to the Sierras.

Another native used for lawns is buffalo grass. It's mat-forming, so it won't grow with wildflowers, but it combines well with spring-flowering bulbs that bloom while it's still dormant. This tough prairie plant once fed the tens of millions of bison that roamed the Great Plains. Today it's used as a durable turf grass that tolerates extreme heat and drought. The Texas Water Commission, which recommends watering St. Augustine grass every 5 days and Bermuda grass every 5 to 10 days, says buffalo grass only needs a deep soaking once every 21 to 45 days. It also withstands the onslaught of insect pests because it harbors many beneficials, such as big-eyed bugs and lady beetles, which naturally control harmful insect species.

There are a few downsides to buffalo grass, however. It won't work everywhere. It prefers loam or light clay soils, not sand or heavy clay. It requires at least six hours of sun a day. It can't take too much rain, won't survive long periods of wet soil and doesn't like the humid southeast. But if you live in the drier parts of the Midwest and western states, where 10 to 30 inches of rain falls every year, buffalo grass may be for you.

To find the most suitable grasses for your region and climate, consult with local nurseries, especially those selling native plants. Another resource is your local extension service, which can be found in the blue pages of the phone book under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, many states have native plant societies that provide a wealth of information.

Bill Stringer, a forage agronomist for Clemson University and a member of the South Carolina Native Plant Society, points out that it is best to buy plants and seeds from nearby sources. Both are more likely to succeed when they're already adapted to local conditions. "A bag of little bluestem seed from Kansas won't work well in South Carolina," he says. "It's genetically programmed for the Great Plains not the Southeast."

If you're planting a small meadow, you can use grass plugs and potted flowers. Larger spaces will need to be seeded. When planting native grass, you can sow seed, plant plugs or lay down sod. The latter two are the most expensive. With sod, however, you will acquire an instant lawn. With plugs, the grass should cover by autumn. Seeding will take two years or so for a lush lawn.

After planting, you will need to patrol your yard for weeds for a couple of years. But by the third summer, the grasses will be able to push out the weeds on their own.

According to Diboll, a meadow doesn't look very good at first because young perennials--especially the prairie grasses--grow very slowly above ground. During this time, they are busy putting down extensive roots, sometimes as much as eight to ten feet long. They finally begin to shoot upward their third year.

My own native grasses are in various stages of development. Some are scrawny little things just getting started. Others are shoulder-high plants, coveted by song sparrows and dark-eyed juncos when the seeds ripen in the fall. Right now, I'm glad I made the extra effort to locate these all-American natives. By planting them instead of grasses from other parts of the world, I know I'm improving the lives of birds and other species of wildlife in a very small but valuable piece of habitat--my own backyard.

South Carolina writer Doreen Cubie recently certified her home as an NWF Backyard Wildlife Habitat™ site. Learn more about native plants and attracting wildlife to your yard.

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