Today marks the end of the first full week of spring, and if you're like most folks, that means the beginning of lawn mowing season. Whether you love it or hate it, mow it yourself, ignore it as long as possible, or have it done professionally, grass is something we all have to deal with in one way or another.
What kind of grass is in your yard? Blue grass? Fescue? Bermuda Grass? Weeds? "Just the green stuff"? If you're among those who take a lot of pride in your lawn then you may very well know what type of grass you have growing in your yard. But if you're like a lot of us, you may have no clue and have probably settled with whatever was growing there when you moved in or whatever type of seed or sod you put down yourself.
If you are one with the manicured lawn and think that native grasses have no place on your property, that's not true. And if you're thinking that native grass is too much of a bother or isn't worth the time and effort, you may want to think again. When it comes to native grasses, there's really something for everyone.
Getting started with native grass species can be as involved or as simple as you want, and they can fit in very well in all types of yards including well-landscaped ones. Not only that, but they are a valuable resource for many of the critters around you, but we'll talk more about that in a little bit.
I've thought about planting native grasses for several years since I learned about coordinated efforts to restore native grasslands, and this year I'm finally going to do it. Even though I'm primarily a creatures and critters biologist, I have a decent background in botany, but even with that, there was still a lot for me to learn, and I thought I'd share some of that with you.
Wait, Aren't All Grasses Basically the Same?
Nope. Actually there are around 12,000 species of grasses across the globe, but of course not all of them can be found in North America. There are hundreds of species here in the U.S.; however, many of them may not fit your image of what grass looks like. Nevertheless, they each have their their own specific requirements, uses, and species they benefit.
There are the introduced species that many of us are familiar with in most lawns today and then there are the ones that have been on this continent since long before most of our ancestors ever set foot here.
When European settlers first came to America, the landscape looked very different from the way it does now. Of course there wasn't the population expansion we have today, but it's more than that. The prairies and plains were covered with numerous native grass and plant species, and there were major portions of the landscape that were nothing but grasslands covered with species such as Big Bluestem, Virginia Wild Rye, Switchgrass, June Grass, Indian Grass, Muhly Grass, Tufted Hairgrass, Sleepygrass, Panic Grass, Ticklegrass (yes those are real names), and hundreds of other grass and plant species.
But over time, as settlers moved west, native grasses fell victim to overgrazing, ranging, farmland cultivation, and the formation of towns and cities. Eventually, the native species that were once widespread sources of food, shelter, and habitat for so many animal, bird, and insect species began to decline.
Nowadays, particularly in the Midwest and Great Plains, these native species only exist as remnants of their original populations, as farmland has taken over. And in many other parts of the country, they have been completely replaced by the the manicured turf that has become the standard for the American lawn.
Now, before you think I'm anti-farm or saying you shouldn't be proud of your lawn, that's not where I'm going here. I'm just suggesting that if we try to fit in a few native species in a small spot somewhere on your property, that these small steps can can make a big difference.
Okay, I'm With You So Far, But Is Native Really All That Important?
Yes it is, and for lots of reasons. One of them is to make life easier on yourself. You see, grasses and other plants native to your area have adapted to grow in your specific part of the country. That means they're already comfortable with the soil type, climate, relative moisture or dryness of the soil, insects, and so on. As a result, they don't need the extra care, watering, and fertilization that the introduced species need, so they're easier for you to take care of (a.k.a. less time out of your busy schedule), and they're also better for the local ecosystem and the environment as a whole.
Another reason to plant native is that these plants can add interest, texture, three-season color, and movement to your landscape. Have that area at the back of your flowerbed that needs a little height or a little something different? Try Big Bluestem.
Is your landscape looking a little bland by the end of the season? Many of the native grass species take on striking colors in the fall when everything else is beginning to die off. For texture and visual interest there are species that have interesting seed heads (think Northern Sea Oats). Or you can try Purple Love Grass for a way to add color and a soft texture to a hardscape. You get the idea. There's a lot you can do here.
And then there are the critters. Native grasses that tend to grow in more clump, or bunch-type, forms provide excellent cover, habitat, and nesting areas for many species of birds and also provide a food source for not only birds but a number of different animal and insect species. Did you know that there are 14 butterfly and moth species that are associated with Switchgrass alone? It's true. In fact, over 70 species of butterflies and moths depend on native grasses in at least some parts of their life cycle. And it's not just butterflies and moths that benefit. There are literally hundreds of different species that can do better if we provide them with the plants they really need to thrive.
And do you have that place in your landscape that is constantly falling victim to soil erosion? They can help with that as well. And if they're planted in or near farm fields, they can improve water quality because they reduce sediment and nutrients in the soil and stop them before they can enter the water supply.
Have I sold the idea yet?
Maybe. What Do Native Grasses Look Like?
The first thing to know is that native grasses tend to be taller and wilder than our closely manicured cousins, and while some tend to grow in turf form, many of them grow in clumps.
There are also cool season and warm season grasses to consider. Cool season grasses tend to grow best in the spring and fall while warm season grasses tend to do better in the warmer summer months.
Cool season grasses also tend to become established more quickly (one to two years) while warm season grasses can take two to three years. Warm season native grasses also tend to have deeper root systems and are more tolerant to poor soils and drought than some other species. Warm season grasses are typically clump grasses while cool season grasses are usually turf grasses.
If you are looking for a shorter-growing species then you're probably going to want to go with a cool season grass. Some shorter-growing species include Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), Red Fescue (Festuca rubra), and Sedges (Carex species).
It's important to know that if you're wanting to re-establish your lawn with native grasses, that most of the native grasses don't form the short, tight, turf-type lawns we're accustomed to, but if you choose the right species and give it enough time and patience, you can get the native shorter-growing species to come together to make a nice lawn that requires much less maintenance than introduced lawns.
Native Grasses on a Smaller Scale
Personally, I'm not planning on digging up my whole lawn but I'd like to still have some native species to work with. I'd also rather work with plants themselves than with seeds. The plants are a little more expensive, but I personally like the convenience they provide, and since I'm not looking to reseed a whole lawn, the cost won't be prohibitive.
I've been ordering native plants online from a site called Prairie Nursery. but they sell seeds as well. I really like this site because they provide a range map on each product's page to help you see whether the plant you're looking for is found in your state and their map even goes down to the county level. This is a great resource for those of us who want to try to get more native plants into our landscape and aren't always sure which plants to buy that are specific to our region.
Establishing Native Grasses on a Large Scale
This section will be useful if you're planning on re-seeding your whole lawn or a field, but it will definitely require a lot of work.
Native grasses tend to be slower to sprout in the spring, and they can easily be out-competed by introduced cool-season grasses and broad-leaved weeds. This means that these competing grasses and weeds will need to be thoroughly controlled prior to planting large areas of native grass, and this process could take a full year before the native species can be planted, particularly if you're going to be planting a very large area.
Personally, I almost never use herbicides because of their environmental impact, but if you're looking at planting a large area, such as a lawn, that has a particularly aggressive weed population, you may have to to plant a cover crop, like spring oats, and treat with an herbicide that is specific to what you're trying to kill (just try to avoid broad-based herbicides).
If you're determined to use a herbicide and want to learn more about how to choose one that is less persistent, Penn State has an excellent brochure that explains herbicides in great detail. You can get that brochure below. But if you're willing to do a little more manual work, you can cultivate the growing area and then manually take care of undesirables as they come up.
Native Grass Seeds for Large Scale Planting
If you're looking to establish a new lawn or field or reseed your existing one, buying native grass seeds is going to be more economical and practical than buying plants.
Native grass seeds are sold in pounds of Pure Live Seed (or PLS) which is the percentage of viable seed in a given lot. This is important because native grasses tend to be much lower in purity and germination than introduced species, and it helps you to determine how much bulk seed you need to apply.
When choosing your seed you'll also want to consider when you'll need to order the species you select because it's not likely that these are going to be stocked at your local seed supply store.
Once you choose the type of seed you'll need to settle on which tools you need to get it in the ground. If you're planting on a large scale you're probably going to want a specialized seed drill, or a corn planter, or you may even need a native seed drill for some species that have fluffier seeds. However you go, you're probably doing to want to try to disturb the soil as little as possible as planting in undisturbed soil significantly decreases the chance of germination of weeds that may be present in the soil, and it helps to avoid soil erosion. A no-till drill is helpful here.
A great source for finding native grass and wildflower seeds for the eastern U.S. is Roundstone Seed. You can buy seeds and seed mixes from packets to ounces to pounds. There is a wealth of information on this site, and I've included an informative brochure on establishing native grasses from Roundstone Seed at the bottom of this post.
If you're in the western U.S. you can check out Western Native Seed.
If you're looking for wildflower and native grass seeds and seed mixes for specific regions of the country, you may also want to check out American Meadows. Just note that American Meadows also sells species that are not native, so make sure what you're buying specifies that it is a native grass.
Notes on Specific Grasses
Here is some very basic information on just a handful of native grass species you may encounter if you're searching in primarily the eastern U.S.. But remember, this is just an example because there are many more species than I could even begin to list here:
1. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)- Deer and rabbit resistant. Grows in a number of types of soil. Drought tolerant. Grows in clumps of blue-green and produces wispy seed heads in the summer. Spreads quickly and can take over an area. Bobwhite Quail tend to love Switchgrass.
2. Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) - Silvery-blue blades that grow from 1 to 3 feet tall. Heat and drought tolerant. Great for erosion control.
3. Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) - Grows in mound form from 1 to 4 feet tall. Produces clusters of small pink flowers in the summer. Produces seeds treasured by sparrows and goldfinches.
4. Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)- Very tall, blue-green (not as dark as Bluestem). Good fall color.
5. Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) - Shorter (about 2 feet tall). Has fine, hair-like foliage, good fall color, and interesting seed heads.
6. Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)- Tall (5 to 8 feet). One of the most widespread native grasses. Turns a beautiful deep red color after the first frost.
Some of these grasses are ones I'm planning on planting myself and I'll cover how that's going in a later installment. I'll also talk about what's being done throughout the country to help re-establish native grasslands including what the most visited national park is trying to achieve.
That was a lot wasn't it? I know. But in reality, I've only scratched the surface of what there is to know. But if you find yourself completely entranced by what you've read and want to know more, there are some excellent resources to help you learn more below. I'll keep you updated on my grass adventure in future posts. Just keep your fingers crossed that it all goes well. Until next time.
1. Here are a couple of links for grassland associations to help provide information and education on species in your area:
Southeastern Grasslands Initiative
Western Grasslands Initiative
2. This is a brochure about native grasses and how they impact wildlife from the Natural Resources Conservation Services and the Wildlife Habitat Council. You can download it here.
3. Here is a very informational brochure about establishing native grasses and forbs (flowering nongrassy herbaceous plants) on a large scale from Roundstone Seeds.
4. Here is a brochure from the National Resources Conservation Service on Establishing Native Grasses that I found to be quite helpful if you're looking to re-establish your whole lawn.
5. If you own farmland the USDA Farm Service Agency has a program that can allow you to make money by planting native grasses on your land. Click below for more about that program.
Unfortunately, yes. But this time it’s not feeding on hemlocks. Instead this one prefers true fir trees, and it's called the Balsam Wooly Adelgid (Adelges piceae). It is a native of Europe, where it feeds on the Silver Fir, and was introduced to eastern North America in the early 1900s. It is believed to have traveled to states on the west coast by the late 1920s and into the southeastern United States by the 1950s.
What is a "true fir" you ask? If you'll allow me to take a rabbit trail here, I'll explain it. A true fir is any tree in the genus Abies (family Pinaceae). These trees are all evergreen and have needle-like leaves and cones that stand upright on the limbs where they stay until late summer. They also tend to have more or less the typical Christmas tree shape and tend to grow in mountainous regions. There are 48 to 55 true fir species across North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
One of the more common firs many people are familiar with is the Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) which is a common choice as a Christmas tree.
Another common Christmas tree is the Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri). Unfortunately, this appears to be one of the trees most seriously impacted by this particular adelgid and will typically die off after only a few years of infestations.
And yet another common Christmas tree is the Noble Fir (Abies procera). I could go on, but you get where I'm going here.
On the west coast, this adelgid tends to prefer Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa), Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis), and Grand Fir (Abies grandis).
In addition to the ecological devastation an insect infestation can have, it can also have massive economic impacts as well. And in the case of the Balsam Wooly Adelgid, this tiny little bug can even impact your choice of which Christmas tree you might be able to bring into your home.
Before we talk more about the adelgid itself, allow me to get on my soapbox about invasive species. Remember back to the beginning when I mentioned that this adelgid is from Europe and feeds on Silver Firs? Well, as is typically the case with invasive species, where it exists naturally it has natural predators that keep their populations in check, but when they invade a new area, there are no natural predators, so the population can explode and grow out of control.
In the case of invasive adelgids, the trees the impact don't often die in the first season, but their resistance is worn down over several seasons, and some trees are affected at a faster rate than others. The picture below is of dieback that has occurred in Utah as the result of this adelgid.
If enough trees are fortunate enough to survive the invasion then they may be able to develop a natural resistance over time and eventually co-exist with the adelgid, but the problem is that doesn't typically happen. What usually happens is that the insects become too numerous, and cause too much damage, that the tree doesn't have a chance and dies off before they can begin to develop any real resistance.
How can you recognize it?
The Balsam Wooly Adelgid is a small, soft-bodied insect that first appears as a small, white, wooly spot on true fir trees. They are small and hard to find, and are usually on the tree for several months before damage begins to appear. They typically cause something called "gouting" on the trees. The USDA describes gouting as "swollen, deformed branches and persistent woody swellings at branch nodes and terminal buds, and bark calluses." The result? Before the trees actually die, their growth and appearance are affected, which means that trees that were slated for commercial use are no longer marketable. Below is a picture of swollen tissue in the twigs of a tree.
There are four stages in the lifecycle of the Balsam Wooly Adelgid: egg, crawler, stationary immature, and adult. The entire population of these adelgids in the U.S. are female. Females are capable of reproducing without males, and each one can produce as many as 200 eggs that are exact genetic copies of the adult. When the egg first hatches, the emerging young are referred to as crawlers, and these are the only locomotive forms of this adelgid. They can move on their own throughout the tree or can be carried for longer distances via wind or animal dispersal.
Once the crawler finds a good spot to feed, they insert their mouthparts into the bark and never move again. Their first winter is spent dormant on the tree as the stationary immature form. In the spring, the immature adelgid begins feeding again and goes through several molt cycles as it transforms into an adult. In some areas there are two lifecycles per year and where this occurs, adult populations peak in both the spring and fall months.
The adults are small (about 1mm in length), dark purple to black, nearly round, and wingless. It is the adult that produces the waxy, wooly substance that serves to protect both the adult and her eggs until they can mature.
Here is a picture of the underside of a female Balsam Wooly Adelgid. Note the stylet that is pointed out in this image. The adelgid uses this feeding tube to puncture the bark and feed off the tree itself.
Once the stylet is inserted, the adelgid injects a substance into the tree that causes abnormal wood growth and interferes with the proper transport of nutrients and water in the tree.
The initial infestations typically cause the most destruction as the adelgids have encountered a new supply of susceptible trees. Because all the adelgids are capable of reproducing, the population growth tends to be exponential. There is typically a lot of tree death in the first few years after an infestation, but the later waves are usually less destructive due to fewer host trees. It takes several years for new trees to grow large enough to become susceptible host plants. It does appear that once adelgids colonize a stand of trees then they are there permanently.
Management and control of the species
Several insects and spiders may feed on the adelgids, but none have been shown to have a preference for this species in particular. There have been several predator insect species introduced from Europe, but these haven't been shown to have a significant effect so far. If the trees that are attacked can survive for more than 1 to 2 years they may develop a wound layer that is impermeable to insects, but this is not widespread throughout the tree and, as the tree grows, it continues to be susceptible to new attacks.
In the northern latitudes, only adelgids below the snowline will survive the extreme cold, so trees in extreme elevations may be less susceptible than lower elevation individuals.
What about insecticides?
Since the adelgids are hidden in crevices and protected by their wooly coating, arial spraying of large areas is not really effective. Spraying individual trees from the ground has shown to be effective, however. Contact insecticides applied directly to the bark have been shown to be effective against the crawler stage. Insecticidal soaps and oils have been shown to be able to penetrate the waxy coating but it is important to get the timing right so the foliage isn't burned.
The good news is that these adelgids can be managed, but it takes vigilance and consistency to keep their numbers under control. That works fine for Christmas tree lots where individual trees can be monitored and treated, but in the wild, the reality is that this bug has wreaked havoc.
A disturbing example is in the most visited national park in the U.S., Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Fraser Fir is the only fir species endemic to the Southern Appalachian Mountains and is restricted to high elevations in southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and northeast Tennessee.
It has been reported that over 90% of the original population of Fraser Firs in the Smokies has been killed. Below you'll see some stark images to illustrate this point. These pictures were taken in the highest elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Pay particular attention to the mountainside in these images where you'll see areas of green interspersed with brown tree remnants. Those dead trees are the Fraser Firs. A quick drive through the highest elevations of the park, up Highway 441 and Clingman's Dome road, will provide excellent views of the devastation on neighboring mountains.
If you want more specifics than I've gone into here, the US Forest Service has an excellent brochure you can download below.
There's also a more specific brochure on Balsam Wooly Adelgid management you can download below. It lists specific chemical agents that are approved to control this species. Until next time.
One of the things my wife, Marci, and I have tried to do with our property is truly make it a wildlife haven. We live on several dozen acres of woodland and manage it to provide an optimum habitat for as many species as we can. We were certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat shortly after we moved here over ten years ago and have actively managed the property as a wildlife haven since then.
One thing I've been interested in since I heard about it several years ago is the attempts to restore the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) trees that were essentially wiped out by chestnut blight in the early 20th century. The mighty American Chestnut could grow to a height of over 100 feet tall and have a trunk diameter over 10 feet. They were strong, rot-resistant, straight, and perfect for use in building projects. At one point, the trees were so numerous in the mountains of Appalachia that, during bloom, the mountainsides looked like they were covered with snow.
, whi At one time there were billions of these trees from Alabama and Georgia to Michigan, but something called Ink Disease in the early 1800s began to steadily kill the chestnut trees in the southern portion of its range. The final blow to the species occurred at the beginning of the 20th century when chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) swept through the forests of the eastern US and decimated the remaining population. The pathogen is native to China but only causes minor problems for the Chinese Chestnut tree.
The blight is a canker disease that grows fast and typically continues to develop until it envelops the trunk and eventually kills the tree. It is present throughout the entire range of the native chestnut and has even spread to areas where chestnuts are planted far out of the native range. It also exists in Europe and China, but has been shown to be of little consequence in the Chinese Chestnut, which can wall-off the fungus before it takes hold, stopping it in its tracks. The European Chestnut has also been found to be susceptible to the disease.
For years there were rumors of a few, naturally blight resistant, American Chestnut trees that had survived the extinction but for some time that appeared to be just a rumor. Interestingly, the American Chestnut still exists, but what tends to happen is that they will re-sprout from the roots but they then become infected with the blight, and this kills the new tree growth back.
Over the years there have been many attempts to restore this great symbol of the eastern American forests but most of those attempts were met with failure. There are currently several organizations working to restore the American Chestnut in a variety of ways with the most successful attempts so far being to cross the American Chestnut with the Chinese Chestnut into a blight resistant hybrid.
While all these attempts are to be applauded, my personal interest has been the research into restoring the pure American Chestnut to its native range. Early last year I came across one of the groups that is working to try and re-establish the pure American Chestnut, The American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation. I contacted them and inquired about participating in their research, particularly since I live in what was once the native range of the chestnut, have a background in scientific research, and have perfect habitat for these trees.
Unfortunately, I wasn't granted the opportunity to participate as I was considered to be too far from the main group of researchers. Disappointed, I sat it aside and planned to see if I could find another group I could connect with when I had more time. But, out of the blue, on October 10, 2021 I got an email saying that the group had more seeds than they expected this year and, if I still wanted to participate, I could do so. I'm not sure who was more excited, my wife or myself, but at any rate, we jumped in with both feet. The only catch? We had to get the seeds, all the supplies and materials (this is a research project after all), get everything prepared, and the seeds in the ground by the end of the month!
When we heard that I have to admit that we both hesitated for a hot minute. Could we really do it? Between working full time and other responsibilities we have, was it possible? We figured we had the room for 30 seeds, but the time required for all the prep work was more than a little daunting. It would take up all of our free time for the next few weeks, but what the hey? It's for the good of the planet right?
So, long story short, we ordered the seeds and all the materials needed to start the project, picked out the sites, and got to work. We had to build 30 cages out of hardware cloth to protect the seeds, and if you've ever done any work with hardware cloth, then you know the cuts, scrapes, and pokes, we dealt with there. We then had to dig the holes, set the cages several inches into the ground to protect the seeds from raccoon and other critters who might find the seeds to be delightful, secure them with rebar, and then get the seeds in the ground.
Well, life happens, and it turns out, daylight hours are limited, so we ended up getting the last seeds in the ground on November 2nd. But then we realized a problem. As the last few cages were going into the ground, my wife did a count and realized that we had more seeds than cages. Six more to be exact. I'm sure I gave her a look of pure aggravation. We'd been working for weeks to get this done, had even dug in the dirt and mud after work on some days, and now she's telling me that we have extra seeds? "Did they send us extra," I asked. "No," she assured me. She'd counted them when they first arrived. What that meant, was somewhere, in the 25 cages we'd already put in the ground, there were holes with no nuts in them. I was speechless.
I said we'd have to make more cages and dig more holes, and she, being the stubborn (ahem, determined) person she is decided to go back through the cages she thought could have been overlooked, remove the cages, dig up the hole, and find where the nuts belong. I told her that after she couldn't find them we'd make some more cages, and I'm pretty sure I was the one who got the death stare that time. But, miracle of all miracles, she did it in just a couple hours time. Whew! I didn't want to make any more cages, and I really didn't think my hands could handle much more.
So now, we wait. And we've been waiting since early November. We've checked the cages multiple times over and have so far, not seen any sign of tampering by any critters. We tried to deter raccoons and squirrels from digging up the seeds by adding cayenne pepper around the cages. So far, so good.
We hope that at least some of them will sprout. In a few weeks we'll start to peek into the cages to see what's happening. And then we have to monitor the trees for any signs of blight for the next three years, but that still remains to be seen. Keep your fingers crossed, and hopefully we'll see some trees sprouting soon. I'll keep you posted. Until next time.
Madbird Biologist - Mark A. Dunaway
I am a wildlife biologist and nature recording expert who is passionate about our planet and the species we share it with. I am an advocate for conservation and enjoy educating others about the plants and animals around us. Tag along with me as I document what I'm up do or talk about things I think others may be interested in. Thanks for joining me on this journey into the natural world.