Glorious grasses

Before settlers crossed the Mississippi River and literally ran for 160-acre plots in one of several Oklahoma land runs in the late 1800s, much of the territory’s western half was covered in mixed prairie grasses.  In what became Oklahoma Territory, the Osage, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche and Apache tribes hunted bison and other animals. Oklahoma’s diverse landscape, including its glorious grasses, made such hunting possible because prairie and forest plants provided cover and forage for animals like bison, elk, bear, rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, and white-tailed deer. On the eastern side of Indian Territory, the land was wooded with blackjack oaks, eastern cottonwoods, post and pin oaks, and many other tree species. Being rocky and hard to develop, much of it is still very wooded today.

1892 Map of Oklahoma and Indian Territories courtesy of the Library of Congress.
1892 Map of Oklahoma and Indian Territories courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I live at the junction between the prairie and the forest in what is now Logan County, a green section at the center of the map above. Each day, I wake up grateful that I own 7.5 acres of land where I continue to work in a garden that’s become a pollinator and bird habitat. Lizards, snakes and frogs like it too. It’s always a work in progress, and that’s what makes gardening such a fascinating hobby. You never run out of things to learn.

And, one thing I’ve learned over the last ten years is that glorious grasses help me build my own little corner of the prairie.

[Click on photos in the galleries to make them larger.]

Tallgrass prairie once covered 14 states throughout the central part of the United States.  On November 12, 1996, the Nature Conservancy purchased the Chapman-Barnard Ranch covering 29,000 acres near Pawhuska, Oklahoma. This purchase helped form what is now the 39,650 acres of the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, once part of the Cherokee Outlet and the Osage lands in the above map and stretching into southern Kansas.

Bill and I have visited the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve numerous times in various seasons. It is a source of respite and inspiration to me in my own garden. I especially notice this In late summer and early fall. Grasses that have been providing background support for the rest of our landscape now take center stage. Ornamental grasses are at their full height and sport fully-formed seedheads. The prairie is a thing of true beauty in any season, but in fall, it is magical. Ornamental grasses breathe life into a garden. Let them breathe life into yours.

Good old Miscanthus sinensis, maiden grass in my garden.. It is next to Blush Knockout rose.
Good old Miscanthus sinensis, maiden grass in my garden. It is next to Blush Knockout rose. Although M. sinensis is invasive in some parts of the U.S., it has never moved from this spot in my garden. I also use ‘Adagio’ in another spot.

How can you replicate some of the tallgrass prairie for your home? One way is by strategically planting grasses. Although the Great American Prairie is composed of a multitude of plants, grasses are its living backbone providing structure for three seasons out of the year. The only time ornamental grasses don’t look good is in late winter/early spring when just cut back. However, the plants surrounding them will shelter grasses until they begin to grow. Grasses are relatively unobtrusive unless you have an entire row of a particular grass as I do with my pink muhly grass.

Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Lenca’ Regal Mist, pink muhly grass with salvia leucantha, Mexican bush sage.
Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Lenca’ Regal Mist, pink muhly grass, with Salvia leucantha, Mexican bush sage peeking through.

Even then, the grasses don’t look bad. They just don’t look like anything.

Bouteloua gracilis Blonde Ambition blue grama grass. I grow it in pure gravel, and only water it occasionally in summer.
Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama grass. I grow it in pure gravel, and only water it occasionally in summer.

Many varieties of grass are simple to grow. In fact, in some climates, they can be invasive, but we haven’t seen that in Oklahoma. You can grow many by seed, or by purchasing container grown plants in the spring or fall. Although I have grown some by seed, I prefer to buy plants to get things more quickly established. Some of the ones I grow are native. Others are not. I tend to choose grasses based upon what I need in a particular space. I then surround them with other prairie plants attractive to pollinators and birds. Although I still love roses and grow them, Rose Rosette Disease wiped out many of my rose shrubs. I will never plant a rose in the same spot for a variety of reasons, and I’ve found grasses are wonderful for rose replacement although I’ve also planted numerous fruiting shrubs for the birds too.

Grasses require some garden work, but it isn’t onerous.

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Ginger Love' is a dwarf fountain grass that I love more than 'Hameln.'
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Ginger Love’ is a dwarf fountain grass that I love more than ‘Hameln,’ although I grow ‘Hameln’ too.

Grasses come is many different heights. Among the shortest are Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and ‘Ginger Love’ dwarf fountain grasses. I love these small grasses for the front of the garden bed. In fact, I bought two more one-gallon containers of ‘Hameln,’ and I’ve planted them in the front of the garage border. Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ is a shorter little bluestem grass. I have trouble growing bluestem grasses, tall or small, in my garden probably because I water more than they like. I use drip irrigation, but I also have years like this one where Oklahoma received tons of rain. Bluestem grasses do not like too much rain or enriched soils. I have both at various times. I also can’t grow Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue.

No one can grow everything, and that’s okay.

I have tremendous success with the native switchgrasses, and I grow several from tall ‘Northwind’ to the shorter ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Cheyenne Skies.’ At eight or nine feet, ‘Cloud Nine’ is one of the tallest switchgrasses available. At the present time, panicums are probably my favorite grasses. They’ve performed so well in the garden that I’ve been able to split them several times. All of the switchgrasses turn beautiful colors in the fall with some being more yellow and others more purple. They are perennial.

Rosa 'September Song' with P. virgatum 'Cheyenne Skies' behind it.
Rosa ‘September Song’ with P. virgatum ‘Cheyenne Skies’ behind it.

Speaking of purple grasses, for pure theater, I don’t think you can beat Pennisetum purpureum ‘Fireworks.’ I’ve grown this grass in pots on the deck and in the borders for years. I especially love it with coleus and Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes.’ Such a beautiful combination. Purple fountain grass is not perennial in Zone 7, but also check out ‘Princess Caroline’ for a large focal point.

If you want a nice tall grass with large plumes, consider Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam,’ a variegated selection. If you can’t find ‘Overdam,’ try ‘Karl Foerster.’ I’m growing it along a fenced border in the back garden as a kind of screen. It’s going to take a while to fill in. I like larger grass clumps at the edge of my gardens because they dissuade deer from entering the space. They don’t like the swishing noise or that they cannot see.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' with 'Autumn Minaret' daylilies.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ with the very late-blooming and tall  Hemerocallis ‘Autumn Minaret’ daylilies.

 

<em>Calamagrostis</em> x <em>acutiflora</em> 'Overdam'
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam.’ In front of the grass is Penstemon smalliiViolet Dusk.’ 

I mustn’t forget Mexican feather grass either. Although it is invasive in some climates, it is well-behaved here. I do have to replant it periodically because it tries to die out. I love how the plumes swish with the wind. Is there anything better?

Try some glorious grasses in your garden, and you’ll see what I mean.

 

8 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m a grasses fan myself, although hubby is less enamored than I am. He constantly fights me and my Karley Rose grass since it likes to flop onto the patio. It does tend to spread out, I’ll admit it. But so pretty in bloom in the summer! Definitely not a winter interest grass though, I allow him to cut it down after frost makes it messy.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I can sure understand all of that. I have a zebra grass that is a flopper too. Thanks for reading!

  2. Richard smith says:

    Your posts are always informative and this one especially helpful to me. I’ve been looking for something to plant in a mostly bare gravelly area probably used in the past for parking. Water tends to stand in the area for several hours after significant rains which probably means it won’t satisfy the “good drainage” needs of so many plants. I’m thinking switchgrass might be the perfect solution and the “Cheyenne Sky” variety you mention sounds very appealing.

    Maiden grass is the only grass I’ve had good experience with and I’ve used it generously, even instead of more typical evergreens at the entrance to the house. I do have a single clump of Pink Muhly, new this year, and would like to add more. Kind of expensive to do mass plantings though buying plants. Your pictures and suggestions are opening my mind (not an easy thing to do) to new possibilities.

    I also added the Mexican bush sage this year, and it’s beautiful. Does it need special care to survive winter?

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Richard, thank you! Bustani Plant Farm has smaller and less expensive sizes of the pink muhly grasses. Steve Owens has ‘Fast Forward’ which I’ve grown. In my garden, a large stand of Mexcian bush sage will usually overwinter unless we get a cold and rainy winter. I always take cuttings of it just in case it dies all the way back. I don’t do anything special, and it usually returns 3/4 of the time. Good luck with yours!

  3. I enjoyed your post, with the historical information and all of the lovely photos. I am not remembering if where I live was short or tall grass prairie, but it is on the edge of one, so there are some native plants that grow in both areas here. I enjoy having a number of grasses here and there in the yard.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Sue! I so appreciate it. I love grasses. They make the autumnal garden.

  4. Glorious grasses, for sure! Dee, I didn’t realize you had such a big lot! That would be nice. 🙂 I always enjoy “edges”–places where two or more ecosystems, landscapes, or habitats come together. Madison is at the edge of the Eastern Hardwood Forest and the Tallgrass Prairie, and not far from the “Central Sands Region.” The biodiversity at edges is rich and plentiful. You’ve illustrated how lovely grasses can be in cultivated places and natural areas. 🙂

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Your grass collection is splendid, a real inspiration. My problem is that I don’t have much sun. I have a few grasses but I would have more if I had more sun.

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