A clump of native grass (sometimes called “ornamental grass”) is very low maintenance and attractive. It’s also remarkably durable in our soil, just as it is—with no fertilizer or other expensive goodies.
The challenge is our unfamiliarity with using it in the home landscape, even though it can dramatically cut the maintenance that your yard requires and is incredibly water-efficient.
I want to be clear; these are not just substitutes for our common lawn grasses, Bermuda and St. Augustine, which require a lot of water and are nonnative. When you say the word “grass,” most people visualize lawns. Native grasses are something almost no other person has in their yard. A “clump” of native grass might consist of almost any prairie grass such as Indiangrass, bluestem, plumegrass, feathergrass or Sideoats grama (our official state grass). The native prairie grasses are what greeted the early settlers when they followed the Natchez Trace down here, encountered a few Indians and Mexicans and began calling this region their home.
Depending on the species of native grass (and there are around 500), it can grow a few inches tall, 10 feet tall, or anywhere in between. The roots descend to incredible depths (mature buffalograss roots can be 8 to 10 feet deep), making them unusually drought-tolerant. An established clump of native grass hardly ever needs watering (only in an emergency). It’s very durable and disease-resistant, too. Artificial fertilizer can actually encourage diseases since the grasses have adapted to our miserable soil and have adjusted to growing on the meager nutrition the soil yields.
On the other hand, traditional lawn grasses like Bermuda and St. Augustine aren’t found in in Texas naturally. They require frequent and expensive pampering, in the form of watering, fertilization, mowing, weeding and soil amendment. Often they’ll turn brown anyway. Native grasses don’t need that artificial stuff.
Planting native grasses is amazingly easy. Just choose a well-drained spot that gets sun most or all of the day. Then plant (or transplant) grass plants like any other landscape plant, except forget about adding expensive soil amendments. You may not see a lot of aboveground growth in the first several months, but the roots of the grasses will be growing vigorously.
Once the grass does grow, there’s almost nothing for you to do. Don’t fertilize, don’t add a lot of water, don’t prune – just stand back and let it grow as it did centuries ago on the Great Plains. If it looks objectionable in the winter, in January you can cut it down to 6 or 8 inches from the ground, but that’s not horticulturally necessary.
Masses of little bluestem grass, muhyl or switchgrass are a soft orange all winter long and should become a solid mass in just a few seasons. In the growing season, a clump of native grass is a brilliant green, often accompanied by a feathery plume each fall. I like to use native grasses in areas where the soil is notoriously poor, and the homeowners will let it expand naturally. It can easily be used in medians and parking lot ends.
Only a few nurseries have these grasses in stock at this time of year. You might even want to order some from a catalog. (Be careful to get the kinds that grow in your part of the state). Another option is to dig plants from a field, providing the owner agrees and a good number remain.
Native grasses can be used in the residential landscape in many ways. There are three potentially dramatic uses:
- A large mass of native grasses (at least 150 square feet) is a strong design element, especially when used in an organic, curving shape. In winter, the mass of grasses makes the drab green of our evergreen trees come to life.
- Many of the medium-height native grasses create an attractive backdrop for colorful flowers planted in the foreground.
- Two or three plants of a tall (6 feet or more) native grass species create a dramatic statement, taking the place of something like a short tree or tall shrubs.
At the very least, try a clump in a corner of your yard. It’s likely that you’ll be planting even more as the years go by and cutting back on the temperamental, costly plants you see in everyone else’s yard.