Grasses are the most important plants on the earth. They produce all the cereal grains that have fed man and animals throughout recorded history.
Of the 10,000 varieties, only a few dozen have become popular as garden plants in the U.S. In other countries, growing grasses as ornamental selections goes back a thousand years.
There are both perennial and annual grasses worth planting. The cold-hardy, perennial, ones form colonies that become larger from year to year. Native, annual, grasses usually produce enough seed that one planting will last several years.
Grasses are available as plants and plugs from garden centers and mail order nurseries and many are easy to grow from seed. Other than tropical grasses, most are cold hardy to zone 3.
In “The Guide to Oklahoma Wildflowers”, Patricia Folley describes native prairie grasses that can be grown in gardens.
Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, called the king of native grasses, grows 2 to 5 feet tall. It turns red-purple after the first frost. Self-seeds. Full sun to part-shade.
Sideoats grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, grows up to 5-feet tall with tiny green and orange flowers. Full sun to light shade.
Buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides, from the shortgrass prairie, forms 1-to-6-inches tall mats, making it a popular warm-season, no-mow lawn.
Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, is considered one of the most important of the tall grasses. Its green, pink, and orange panicles are up to a foot long, on top of 5-foot tall clumps. Switchgrass is the primary food source of skipper caterpillars and is being researched as a biofuel.
Dallas Blues Panicum virgatum has powder blue leaves, mauve blooms and maroon seedheads.
Red Switch Grass, Rostrahlbusch, “best of the reds”, has red leaves in fall and pink-red seedheads.
Shenandoah Red Switchgrass has red-tipped green leaves that turn dark red in mid-summer followed by pink plumes in the fall.
Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, grows 40-inches tall on dry sites. The flowering spikes are green and yellow from late summer to fall.
Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, is the official OK state grass. It is a major grass of the tall grass prairie and grows across the state. In the fall its blue-green stems sport plumes of flowers.
Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora Karl Foerster, tolerates standing water, drought, wind and acidic soil. The variety, Northwind, has blue leaves and summertime flowers that are used in dried arrangements. It is easy to grow in sun or part-shade in moist, sandy, or clay soil. Does not re-seed. 2001 Perennial Plant of the Year.
Native grass seeds are important for finches, juncos, Eastern towhees and dozens of other birds.
Stock Seed Farm, http://stockseed.com, sells seed for 50 prairie and turf grasses.
Native American Seed, http://www.seedsource.com, has 40 native grasses.
Sand Hill Preservation, www.sandhillpreservation.com, has several grain varieties including Sorghum, Broom corns, Teff, and Amaranths. Amaranth is planted in the spring, used like spinach all season, and left to make seed for the winter. The seeds can be harvested and eaten or popped. If they are not harvested they will feed the birds all winter. Watching the birds swinging on tall amaranth branches is a delightful winter scene.
Millet has become popular for home gardens. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com, offers hybrid pearl, Purple Majesty, and Lime Light Spray millet. Their catalog includes a chart to help you order the right amount of seed.
There are dozens of easy-care, cold hardy and drought tolerant grasses to try in your garden.