Helping Dad bring in the sheaves and stooking with him was one of my favorite occupations as a pre-teener. Wheat had already replaced natural prairie grasses in many parts of the province and still does. As a child I found there was something eerie and yet soothing as I daydreamed my way through the wheat fields before they were ready to be harvested. If there was a gentle wind, I could even imagine that they were talking to each other.
Fast forward and now we yearn for some of these whispery and lithe plants in our yards and at cottages. The number of species grasses and those that have been hybridized has grown dramatically. Seeking out the best choices for your specific needs can be confusing.
Best that I start with a modest list of Native grasses – native in that they will usually succeed in our Canadian climate– native in that they’ve been here for a long time before us. Panicum is my favorite.
Panicum – Switch Grass
Sorgastrum – Indian Grass
Spartina - Prairie Cord Grass
Chasmanthium – Northern Sea Oats
Andropogon - Big Blue Stem.
Here are some things you need to know about these ancient plants and their cultivated more ornamental progeny, floral creatures that have 15% of the same DNA as humans. We’re not ready to talk to each other just yet. Still, plants have other ways of communicating if they don’t like where we’ve parked them.
Clumpers and spreaders – the words speak for themselves.
Annual or perennial – I favor the latter.
Cool or warm varieties – if a grass is at its best in the fall then it is a “warm” variety and will need to be cut back early the next spring – if a grass is at its best earlier in the year then it is a “cool” variety and will need to be pruned late in the fall.
Research – make sure to find out the potential height and width of a plant before you purchase it. (Like puppies?)
Favorite conditions – likes full sun, tolerates partial shade, is drought resistant.
Location and aesthetics – where you want to put it and why – are you able to anticipate its form and colour seasonally and as it matures over the years?
Fall cleanups – are you going to leave some grasses standing when you prune “cools” in the fall? The birds might enjoy some remaining stalks through the winter, and so might you - after a frosty night when you wake up to see them clad in silvery frost.
Maintenance – even if a plant is advertised as drought resistant, I don’t take this for granted – especially in a year like 2020. Some weeding is also appropriate if you want your grass to look its best and not have too many competitors around its base.
Panicum virgatum (Switch Grass) cultivars
All Clumping and mostly 4 to 5 ft high including flowers
Cloud Nine, Dallas Blues, Heavy Metal, Warrior, Shenandoah, Huron Solstice, Rehbraun and many more! All offer varying degrees of coloration depending upon time of the year but particularly in the fall.
Occasionally I come across the uncultivated Panicum and I let it be. We need to respect our elders.
Grass scapes – Quinn and Macleod
Grasses – Nancy J. Ondra