Thoughts on native grasses

Your mental image of a grassland may be a vast expanse of land with few or no trees. Maybe you’re picturing a tall-grass prairie someplace in Illinois, a short-grass prairie sweeping somewhere across northern Texas, or maybe the hayfield just of out of town.  Thinking about grasslands invokes stories of the past when prairies were vast compared to today’s remnants. This is good, we should discuss the past, the prairies, and their plight today, but our discussions should also move forward and go beyond the traditional prairie lands to the forested regions throughout our country.   

When we go back and remember the great prairies of North America we remember that those ecosystems hosted vast amounts of diversity and large populations of herbivores.  This thought journey can do more for us than make us long for the past;  we should remember that warm season grasses, the grasses that were the dominant component of those prairies, are valuable and can still be ideal plants to bring bounty to our fields today.  Warm season grasses grow during the warm months (June through August) and they can provide both cow and rabbit with new shoots to eat when other grasses are stagnant.  Warm season grasses, once established, are essentially drought-resistant. They are nutritive to livestock and provide ideal cover for native ground birds and other wildlife.   

Looking forward reveals that there is great potential for warm-season grasses in many places; you do not need a large field to consider planting traditional prairie plants. Plants such as little bluestem grow naturally in many smaller openings throughout landscapes dominated by temperate forests. They can make a beautiful front yard of flowing grass and the stems can withstand heavy loads of winter snow, so don’t count yourself out if you live “up north”. Planting openings, yards, and hayfields with warm season grasses would be extremely beneficial for wildlife.

I have met many people who are sick of the fields or backyards that are just full of knapweed. I wish it could be as easy as telling them to go buy and plant native grass seed. Planting and growing native grasses takes a planned effort and commitment.  First the non-native weeds need to be removed to give new seedlings the time they’ll need to establish. If the planting were in a yard this would require removing the current grass sod. Often, in addition to tilling the soil surface, herbicides are needed to kill the vegetation to give the new grass seedlings a head start (see photo). Plants like spotted knapweed are often persistent in the seed bank and may require a couple applications of treatment before conditions are ready to plant the grass seed. Grass seed is generally scattered with seed spreaders, but a seed drill could be used for large fields just as taking one seed out of the palm of your hand could be the method for planting in your garden bed.

Time is the big thing here. That virtue called patience, you’ll need it! A broad leaf herbicide (one that kills broad-leafed plants, not grasses) is often used in the first couple springs to keep the weeds back while the grass rises in dominance. Not until the end of the second growing season will a planting start to look good, maybe three to five years. Once you feel the grass is well established and aggressive weeds are at bay, you can introduce native grassland forbs to the planting (plugs or seed) transforming your garden (or field) into a beautiful mosaic and an extremely productive ecosystem.

Finding sources for purchasing native seeds is not difficult; a few options are listed below. Acquiring the herbicides to apply is more difficult. In brief, over the counter herbicides can do the job, but not always. I highly recommend consulting with a natural resource professional about what herbicides to use or to contract out the herbicide application. Searching for “Habitat Improvement, Landscaping, Invasive Species, or Restoration” in the RML Consultants Search tool will lead you to the right people.

So find a consultant with the professional expertise to help plan and execute your project or just start by picking up some warm season grass plugs from a local native wildflower nursery to plant near your house.

Do It Yourselfer? You could start here

Find Native Grass Seeds by exploring these sites: