In the spring and summer of the year, green becomes the predominant color. Leaves appear and change our sunny areas to shade to give shelter from the summer sun. Grass pokes through the soil and grows with the onset of spring rains. Kentucky bluegrass Pao pratensis, named for the state that accesses that variety for the nurture of its equine population, becomes lawns in neighborhoods. But grasses are so much more than that.
Grasses grow as natives along our shorelines and help preserve waterfront property. Ornamental grasses augment our landscape. Grasses grow in meadows and add texture to our views. Grasses can be placed in pots and dried for winter interest for a truly year-round addition to our homes.
Native Grasses in our Landscape
As in all landscape design evaluation is the key. Look at your property and learn the value of added varieties of grasses. Along the water shoreline, grasses often grow naturally and should be encouraged. Living shorelines are developed to protect the land from erosion from waves, increasingly rising water, and runoff from the land. Native grasses and shrubs are planted along tidal water lines to stabilize and protect shorelines. Many warm season grasses can be seen along our shores. Switchgrass Panicum, little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium, and salt meadow (or marsh) hay, also known as salt meadow cordgrass Spartina patens, are dominant plants here. Salt meadow cordgrass has a remarkable built-in hinge like structure that allows it to bend over with the rising tide. Saltmarsh cordgrass Schoenoplectus acutus is very specific as to the area where it likes to grow. Its dark stems can be clearly seen in a neat line in marshes marking exactly where its needs are met. Bulrush is also known as hardstem bulrush. Spartina alterniflora is the predominant of our shoreline grasses and has graceful thin wands that sparkle in the sunshine.
Giant reed Phragmites australis is a two-edged sword. Phragmites can be grown to be used as thatch on roofs often seen in historical sites. Unfortunately, it can also grow vigorously and invade and overcome valuable native species of grasses.
There are many grasses that like to grow along our shorelines. Tall and short cordgrass is a welcome addition to stabilize those environments. The roots of these grasses are extensive and along with shrubs they produce an amazing network to resist erosion. Our shoreline population of waterfowl, crabs, minnows, birds and turtles are able to obtain shelter and nourishment in the habitat of healthy shoreline grasses. They also create a beautiful reflection of the sunrise and sunset as they gently wave in the breezes. They continue during the winter to sparkle and add beauty while lighting up decorated with frost and snow.
Grasses in our Meadows and Wild Places
The grasses in our meadows and open fields decorate open spaces. Little bluestem, big bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass like to grow in fallow or unplowed spaces. Farmers tell you they indicate the low fertility of the soil there. The bluestem varieties, named for the blue tint of their stems in the spring, grow with tufts along their stems. These tufts turn to an orange/red in the fall on oat colored stems. Whole fields glow with their presence.
Adding Grasses to our Landscapes
There are hundreds of ornamental grasses to choose from. They come in varying forms, colors, sizes, textures and flowering times. They can be planted to stand on their own or in combination with other plants. Some can spread by rhizomes or runners (shoots that reach out from the body of the plant). Some grow in clumps. They are excellent in their ability to stabilize soil with their extensive root systems and prefer low fertility. In fact, most grasses respond negatively to fertilization by flopping and flattening out on the ground rather than growing upright.
True grasses thrive in sun and require 3-5 hours of sunlight. Fall color is showier in sunlight. Place them where a sunset will catch their splendor or where they can be viewed from a porch or a window.
Sometimes sedges and wood-rushes are confused with grasses. Sedges and wood-rushes prefer shade. Sedges and wood-rushes are classified as graminoides and are wind pollinated. An easy expression to use to remember the difference is “Sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses are hollow, right up from the ground.”
As with many plants, weather can affect their growth. Temperature, light intensity and available moisture can govern the growth of grasses. They are known as either warm or cool season grasses. Cool season grasses need to be divided in late winter or early spring. They can be planted in partly shaded areas.
Warm season varieties break their dormancy late in the spring and like it hot, 85-90 degrees. They can be divided when in active growth before bloom in late spring or early summer. They are slow growing till summer and flower at summer’s end. Many take on excellent fall color. So in some climates winter cold may limit growth or summer heat may end growth. Warm season grasses include: Andropogon, Hakonechloa, Miscanthus, Muhlenbergia, Panicum and Pennisetum.
Spreaders and Clumpers
The growth of grasses helps you to place them appropriately. Clumpers or those that grow in a widening clump shape may be placed to remain orderly among other perennials and annuals. Spreaders can be counted upon to expand and cover a lot of territory, often acting as a ground cover. Both need to be cut back yearly in order to maintain an attractive plant. The most effective timing to do this is in very early spring when the brown of last year’s growth begins to get messy and the new green is just beginning. Cutting back mature grasses can be a challenge. Some prefer to cinch the grasses with a rope and cut down with a grass trimmer, hedge shears, or chainsaw. Others maintain the best way to “cut” them back is simply to burn the old plant material. When burning grasses you need to be sure of an available water source, county ordinances pertaining to burning and that the grasses being burned do not impact on surrounding plant material. Ornamental grasses will die out in the center over time requiring division to maintain healthy plant clumps. Use a pitchfork or shovel and lift the clump from the ground. Divide with a knife or sharp spade. Throw away or compost the dead center of the plant. Before digging always check to avoid utilities. Plant the divided sections with the crown slightly above the soil line, tamp or stomp in securely to prevent any air pockets and keep watered till established, usually a month or so. Water if there is no rain of an inch or more in a week’s time. Make sure that the newly planted grass gets a good soaking by leaving the hose dripping for approximately an hour at the base of the plant. Once established, grasses are reasonably drought tolerant.
So what can I plant?
Consider the space you want to plant. Do you want clump-forming or spreading varieties? What about colors of the fluorescence (flowers)? Consider the pink plumes of muhly grass Muhlenbergia capillaris. Do you desire variegated leaf varieties such as Miscanthus sinensis with its green lengthwise striped leaves or Miscanthus zebrinis with white patches along its stem leading it to be dubbed Zebra grass. Or consider the scale and drama of pampas grass, some varieties growing to six feet or more tall. If that scale is too dominant, there are some varieties that are smaller.
Some varieties vary in their growth habits. Hakone grass is a Japanese variety that has a beautiful gracefully arching, light green growth. It spreads by rhizomes but is so controlled that it is not considered invasive. Switchgrass, which sometimes has some rhizomes that stray from the clump, essentially has a clumping habit. Japanese blood grass is a spectacular deep red color that adds drama to any pot or area where it is planted. Some varieties of Miscanthus are red in color and make nice additions to pots of annuals. Always check for the planting zones for the grasses you want to plant.
In our agricultural zone 7, some fescue or grasses are considered “no mow” and provide a graceful almost carefree alternative to a mowed lawn. Check with your local nursery or farm store for information on the types adaptable to your specific conditions.
So settle in and enjoy the vast variety of grasses both native and ornamental that you can enjoy in your landscape. The next time someone mentions grass you can be well-informed and know that they may be speaking of more than just lawns.