Garden Variety: Native grasses are low-maintenance landscape options

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Little bluestem, prairie dropseed, Indian grass and other native ornamental grasses are good options for the Kansas landscape because of their drought tolerance, resistance to pests and overall low maintenance requirements. Most varieties are blooming now or will be in the next few weeks. Expect to see these plants at their peak in appearance over the next few months, with seedheads persisting through winter.

To add ornamental grasses to the landscape, make selections now and plant in September or October, or wait and plant in early spring. They may take a few years to establish and look their best after planting, but once they’re established, they need little attention. The only recommended maintenance is to cut back or burn off the dead foliage in late winter or early spring.

The species below all prefer full sun.

Grasses to try:

Little bluestem, or Schizachyrium scoparium, is a coarse, clumping grass that grows to 2 to 3 feet and has a bluish-green tint in the leaves. Flowers are purplish when they emerge in August and turn to white as seeds mature. Fall color is where this plant shines, though, and red, purple and bronze streaks emerge in the leaves as winter approaches.

Improved cultivars (selected from breeding) stand up better than the species which is known for often flopping over late in the season. Look for varieties named Blue Heaven, Carousel, Blaze, Jazz, Prairie Blues, Standing Ovation, Twilight Zone and others.

Prairie dropseed, or Sporobolus heterolepis, is a mass of very fine, light-green leaves that spill over onto one another to give a soft, graceful look to the landscape. Pale pink flower heads emerge in late summer on 2-foot to 3-foot stems rising above the mass of leaves. Flower heads reportedly smell like coriander and turn to tan as seeds set.

Prairie dropseed is best planted in groups of five or more for effect. Seeds will fall to the ground, as the name implies, but they rarely sprout. A dwarf selection called Tara is also available, growing to 12 inches with 2-foot flower stems.

Indian grass, or Sorghastrum nutans, is one of the largest native grasses, reaching 5 to 6 feet with its flower/seed heads that appear in late summer. Leaves are blue-green and add a coarse texture to the garden. Flower stems are upright with showy, feathery flowers that turn deep brown to gray as they mature. For improved varieties, look for Sioux Blue, Indian Steel and Llano.

Other native grasses worth planting:

• Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) improved varieties include Shenandoah, Dallas Blues, Prairie Fire, Northwind, Cheyenne Sky and others. Popular in the industry. Some varieties may reseed.

• Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), improved varieties include Blonde Ambition and Hachita

• Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), improved variety Windwalker

• Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)

Ornamental grasses to use with caution:

Northern sea oats is a pretty, coarse, sea green ornamental grass with broad showy seeds that hang from the flower stems. Almost every seed that falls to the ground will sprout, which is great if the goal is to fill an area that is contained by something else, like a sidewalk or parking lot. Luckily, they pull easily if they end up seeding into an area where they are unwanted.

Miscanthus or maidengrass is a genus of a broad range of species and cultivars. Look for newer, sterile varieties if you want it. Some older varieties reseed and are considered invasive in other parts of the U.S.

Several Pennisetum varieties — Hameln, Karley Rose and Bunny Tails –have been popular for decades. Unfortunately, they are all cultivars of Pennisetum orientale, which appears to be more of a problem for reseeding than other Pennisetum species. Hameln also tends to have winter dieback in this area and can end up looking weedy.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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