Roots and Shoots: From the Prairie to Your Yard

Walking through a meadow at Little Stony Point recently, I was struck by how the angle of the sun in this daylight saving time/early-November moment makes native grasses glow and shimmer in the light. The silky-feeling seed heads rise up from the blade-like leaves and flutter in the breeze. It’s a full sensory experience if you stop to enjoy it. 

Little bluestem seed heads

Little bluestem seed heads mix with asters and ferns for a colorful fall tableau. (Photo by P. Doan)

I consider grasses to be one of the winter interest plants in a landscape. I usually work with warm-season native grasses and they don’t contribute much to the garden until later in summer when they reach their full size. Then, when other plants are settling down around them, grasses can stand out. Many of these grasses are prairie, meadow or grassland plants and tolerate a lot of conditions like clay or acidic soil, sun or part-sun, wet or dry soil, and they are deer-resistant. That said, carefully review the plant’s needs before deciding where to put it. 

Plant grasses in clusters or mounds, or intermingle in a perennial garden. These versatile plants can be a focal point, with three or more planted near each other in a garden. They can be used as edging along a path, driveway or a landscape feature. Once I started noticing grasses at botanical gardens that weren’t the usual exotic and ornamental choices, a lot of possibilities opened up. Another great feature of native grasses is strong and deep root systems. Consider them as erosion control by using them as a ground cover. They are much more effective than turf grass on a slope. 

Here are some recommendations for favorite native grasses. All are perennial and, unless noted, should be planted in full or partial sun. 

Little bluestem
Schizachyrium scoparium
This tolerant grass will be fine in wetter soils and very dry soils. I was warned when I started planting that it would spread aggressively but haven’t found that to be the case at all. I wish it would spread! It’s not just a smaller version of big bluestem, but the two have similar hues on the blades. It grows up to 3 feet tall and turns a bronze-orange color for winter. 

Big bluestem
Andropogon gerardii
Reaching up to 8 feet tall with a blue-and-purple tint, this grass has a dramatic effect when mixed into a landscape. I love pairing it with Echinacea, mountain mint and yarrow. The foliage, colors and textures make it into a lovely blend with the purple coneflowers, silvery mountain mint and lacy yarrow leaves with white blooms. They complement each other nicely. 

Pink muhlygrass
Muhlenbergia capillaris
When I started professionally making landscape plans with gardeners, this was one of the most-requested plants. Most people didn’t know the name but it was referred to as that “pink grass from the Highline.” As our growing zone has shifted to the warmer edge, the lower Hudson Valley has become more suitable for this Zone 6 to 10 plant. It is so striking, though, that most gardeners don’t mind replacing it if a particularly cold spell in winter kills it. Pink muhlygrass can reach 4 feet in height and one plant can spread up to 2 feet. 

Sedges
Carex spp.
This low-growing grass is found widely in forests and meadows ,and covers a wide range of species. Carex pensylvanica is called “sedge” and makes a solid groundcover for partial and full-shade conditions and will also tolerate sun. It can be found more easily in garden centers. Plantain sedge grows in moist soil in shade; palm sedge grows in wet conditions in sun to part-shade. There is a sedge for every space. If you want to take up a new and challenging hobby, try to identify all the sedges that you find. It can be difficult. 

Sideoats grama
Bouteloua curtipendula
Growing up to 2 feet tall, this easy and tolerant grass will be fine in poor soils and is extremely drought- tolerant. Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) is a short-grass prairie plant that can withstand all of the other tough conditions and mowing. 

Prairie dropseed
Sporobolus heterolepis
Like its name says, this is a native prairie plant. It looks just right in a garden, too. The blades of this grass are fine and slender, arching upward to 3 feet. Its seed heads arc over the glossy leaves. In the winter, it fades to gold and brown, still with a lovely mound.

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