In the Garden:
Upper South
October, 2012
Regional Report

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Swtichgrass is among the most popular of our native grasses for the garden.

A Vote for Native Grasses

Autumn is such an enjoyable time to be outdoors, what with mild temperatures and crystalline blue skies. For some, that time outdoors may be spent reading and relaxing in a chaise, while others of us are happiest weeding. No matter your "outdoor personality," if you garden, you inevitably think about what other plants you could add to make your landscape better. This year's challenging growing season has made those ruminations even more pronounced this fall. For myself, the answer is to add more garden-perfect native ornamental grasses, for both their beauty and ability to thrive no matter the weather.

Using Ornamental Grasses in the Garden
For some gardeners, the dominant reason to add ornamental grasses is that they provide motion and music to the garden. Gracefully yielding to every wind, grasses offer animation and gently rustling sounds. For others, the multi-season impact of grasses with summer foliage, fall color, and winter's persistent flowers, foliage, and form is the reason to grow them. Of course, grasses also provide a lithe, fine-textured juxtaposition to perennials and shrubs with broader leaves.

In terms of design, using grasses in broad swaths can create either a contemporary look or naturalistic garden. Massed plantings can give the effect of a rippling meadow. The low-growing types also serve as ground covers or as an edging, while the larger types can act as a vertical accent in the garden or be a graceful screen or informal hedge. Some even grow well in containers.

Some Favorite Native Ornamental Grasses
Although there are ornamental grasses available from around the world, choosing grasses that were originally growing here on the prairies and in the fields and at the edges of woodlands means that these plants are naturally well suited to our gardens. The best of the native grasses for our gardens tolerate drought, have few pests and diseases, are long-lived, need minimal care, and provide a natural habitat for wildlife. Below are some of the most easily grown and widely available, listed from shortest to tallest.

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) Forming an airy mound to 15 inches tall and wide when in flower, blue grama has narrow blue leaves and intricate seed heads resembling eye lashes. Drought-tolerant, it requires full sun and grows in any well-drained soil. Two varieties to look for are 'Hachita' and 'Blonde Ambition'.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) Growing to 2 feet tall and wide, prairie dropseed is one of the most refined grasses with its graceful, threadlike leaves. Deep green in summer, the leaves turn hues of golden orange in autumn. The delicately scented, airy, open panicles on slender stalks reach 30 inches in late summer. Prairie dropseed is long-lived and easily grows on most soils in sun or light shade.

Indian wood oats or River oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) Growing in clumps 2 to 3 feet tall, river oats delights with its flat, dangling seed heads that are prized for both fresh or dried flower arrangements. One of the most adaptable of native grasses, it thrives in both sun and shade, although it will need more moisture when in sun. Be forewarned, it does readily re-seed.

Little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium) Native over a wide area, little bluestem grows narrowly to 2 to 4 feet tall with summer foliage varying from bright green to blue, changing to tan to orange in the fall. The bluer the leaves, the redder the fall color. The flower stalks are thin and delicate. Little bluestem grows best in full sun and must have well-drained soil that is not too fertile. Blue-leaved selections include 'The Blues' and 'Prairie Blues'.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) Of all our native grasses, switchgrass has become the most popular one for gardens because of the development of a number of particularly beautiful varieties that easily rival miscanthus varieties. Size among these varies from 4 to 8 feet tall, with the growth habit ranging from erect and narrow to loose and billowing. Plants are covered in airy pink flower panicles in late summer. Fall and winter color is usually golden. Widely native to much of the United States, switchgrass is equally adapted to various garden situations, including full sun to light shade and most soils. Cultivars to consider include 'Prairie Fire', 'Cloud Nine', 'Dallas Blues', 'Hanse Herms', 'Northwind', 'Shenadoah', 'Rotstrahlbusch', 'Heavy Metal', 'Ruby Ribbons', 'Trailblazer', and 'Warrior'.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Vase-shaped, 5 to 7 feet tall, with coppery plumes in late summer and blue foliage changing to yellow-orange in autumn, Indian grass grows best in full sun. It is, however, adaptable to a wide range of soils. Plants readily self-sow. 'Sioux Blue' is favored for the particularly striking color of its leaves.

Big bluestem or Turkey foot (Andropogon gerardii) Growing to 8 feet tall, big bluestem has been called the king of the prairie grasses. With stiffly upright stems, the green or blue-green leaves turn orange in the fall. The airy flowers, somewhat resembling a turkey's foot, have a reddish cast. Dramatic in full sun, big bluestem adapts to a wide range of soil and moisture conditions. Beside the species, also consider 'Pawnee',' Indian Warrior', and 'Sentinel'.

As ornamental grass expert Rick Darke has written, "Gardens must be at once inspiring and conserving, high-spirited and low maintenance. They must reflect and sustain the rhythms of our lives, our home, and our shared places, and they must speak to us eloquently of the sun and season. Delightfully, there are grasses suited to all these ideals."

As the asters and mums reach their glorious time in the garden and katydids sing their mating songs, imagine ways to use native grasses in your garden.

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