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.
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.