Native Grasses for Your Home Landscape


by Cary George

Cary George

Ornamental grasses, as a landscape element, have become increasingly popular in the home garden. Many of the selections from local nurseries and mail-order catalogs are native varieties but many are not.

Gardeners’ first consideration when planting native grasses should be an assurance that the seed source is local in order to both guarantee hardiness and genotype.


Of the non-native grasses Miscanthus is by far the most popular and for many good reasons: It’s easy to establish; is a warm-season grass, likes full sun and it grows in most soils. Its seed-head is highly ornamental even in winter, and there are hundreds of selections, dependent only on the gardener’s choice of height and color. The only caution would be to select hardy varieties that don’t bloom too late for our short growing season. Be sure to plant in full sun or the plant will become spindly and floppy.

The Wildflower Garden has 28 species of grasses. Some are cool-season grasses (Canada wild rye, bluegrass, reed canary grass). Mary are warm-season grasses (Indiangrass, Bluestem, Switchgrass). Some are unwanted weeds (Foxtail, Brome, quack-grass, crabgrass). Traditionally, the textbook definition of a prairie is 70 percent grasses and 30 percent wildflowers. The Eloise Butler prairie is much more a garden than a native prairie, and the percentages are roughly reversed. The backbone of our Prairie Garden and what gives it its balance is the warm-season grasses featured in this issue: Big and little Bluestem, Indiangrass, porcupine grass, Cordgrass and Switchgrass.

(Andropogon gerardi/Andropogon scropanius)
Little Bluestem  

Big Bluestem, the “king of the prairie,” often reaches 6 feet or more in height. The distinctive seed-head looks much like one of the grasses common names: Turkey foot. The bluish-bronze color of this grass after the first frost gives it a year-round landscape appeal. The Little Bluestem (photo at right) looks much the same as the bigger Bluestem except the height is usually 1 to 2 1/2 feet. The shorter height makes this a better grass for home landscapes that combine flowers and grasses. Many named cultivars are now available from specialized nurseries.


PRAIRIE CORDGRASS (Spartina pectinata) Prairie Cordgrass  
Cordgrass grows to a height of 6 feet or more and is the native grass of choice for wet areas. It is an excellent choice for pond edges or any low, damp area. Spreading by rhizomes, its soil-stabilizing characteristics are well known by landscapers. Farmers often cut Cordgrass several times in the summer for winter hay. Cutting early before the sharp edges develop makes the grass edible by livestock. The long, flat stems are coarse and sharp, causing “paper cuts” to the unwary gardener.  
PORCUPINE GRASS (Stipa spartea) Porcupine Grass  
Porcupine Grass is a cool-season bunching grass, a native grass that reaches a height of 2 to 4 feet. The seed-head, when mature, is very sharp and needle-like. Because of this drawback, anyone using it for forage should realize that when it matures, it is injurious to cattle - even though is is an excellent choice to add texture and color to the home garden.  
  Above: 2nd photo under. Top photo by Merel Black, 2nd photo by Robert Freckmann, both of Freckmann Herbarium, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, WI.  
SWITCHGRASS (Panicum viragatum) Switchgrass  
Switchgrass is an open, wispy grass, a warm-season bunching grass that provides a nice contrast to the other denser native grasses. Growing 2 to 4 feet, it prefers moist places but does well everywhere. Its fall/winter color changes from red to yellow-orange, providing year-round interest. It’s also an excellent grass for forage and soil stabilization.  
INDIANGRASS (Sorghastrum nutans) Indian grass  
Along with big Bluestem, Indiangrass is, perhaps, the most dominant and beautiful of the tall native grasses. At a height of 5 to 7 feet its golden plume provides spectacular show each fall. Like all grasses of the tall-grass prairie, Indiangrass needs adequate rainfall to flourish and is indigenous to the area we now refer to as the Corn Belt.  

Editor's Addition: To learn more about native grasses that would grow best for your environment I suggest you consult “Ornamental Grasses for Cold Climates” by Mary Hockenberry Meyer. (Review) This 40 pages soft cover book originally published in 2004 by the University of Minnesota Extension Service is based on research done over 17 years at the University Landscape Arboretum. It is well illustrated with color photos and most importantly will advise you which species are best to avoid. A visit to the Landscape Arboretum in summer and fall, especially to the grass development plot will show you how these grasses will look in the landscape. Also, look at his article on "Ornamental grasses for the home landscape." (Gary Bebeau, Friends member and ornamental grass grower.)  
*Cary George was Gardener at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden from 1987 through 2003. Cary was the fourth person to be charge of the Garden since its founding. This article was originally published in the newsletter of The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc., The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 47, No. 3, Fall 1999 (pdf). Photos not otherwise credited are © Friends of the Wild Flower Garden.  
©1999, 2012 The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.