By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
For those looking for a good cover crop or livestock forage, Bromus prairie grass may be just what you need. Let’s learn more about what is prairie grass used for and how to plant prairie grass seed.
Prairie bromegrass (Bromus willdenowii) is native to South America and has been in the United States for about 150 years. It’s also known as Bromus prairie grass, rescue grass and matua. Found mainly along roadsides, hay meadows, or in pastures, this grass is a cool-season bunch grass that matures at about 2 to 3 feet in height. Although this grass is a perennial, it acts like an annual in parts of the southeast United States.
This grass appears much like orchardgrass but has densely covered basal leaf sheaths with light hairs and a shorter ligule. The leaves are rolled in the bud and a light green color. Prairie grass seed heads are produced all through the growing season.
The most common use of prairie grass is as a crop extender during cool times of the year, such as early spring and late fall. Because of its dense nutrient composition, it is a nutritious and very cost effective livestock forage. Cattle, horses, sheep, goats and various wildlife enjoy munching on this tasty grass, which is often included in pasture mixtures with fescue, Bermuda grass and orchardgrass.
Prairie grass seed isn’t competitive, so it’s best planted with other cool-season grasses. It does, however, combine well with alfalfa.
Soil should be fertile and medium-coarse for best results. This grass will tolerate drought but not flooding and requires adequate drainage. Prairie grass likes high nitrogen and a soil pH around 6 to 7.
Care must be taken not to plant the seed too deeply or there will be germination problems. The best planting times in the southeast are between the middle of August and the end of September.
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Coarse grasses -- such as smooth crabgrass (Digitaria ischaemum), large crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) and dallisgrass (Paspalum dilatatum) -- look like weed patches when they pop up amongst finer lawn grasses. These grasses may appear in your lawn after birds spread their seeds, or you may have unknowingly introduced them in a seed mixture or loam top-dressing. Coarse grass patches are more likely to show up when your lawn is not healthy, such as when it is under-watered or under-fertilized. Fortunately, you can take steps to eliminate coarse grasses from your lawn.
Landscape archtect Petra Pelz own garden is a magical mix of structural grasses and a carefully chosen selection mix of colourful perennials. Read her tips on creating your own prairie planting
Landscape architect Petra Pelz has created a magical private garden in Germany using structural grasses and a limited mix of colourful perennials. Petra has used prairie planting to great effect, making the garden feel rich and dense. There is an ever-changing pattern of colours and shapes to keep the interest in the garden going throughout the year. Here you’ll find planting inspiration from Petra’s garden and top tips for introducing prairie planting into your own garden.
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Grasses, especially Miscanthus and Hakonechloa, feature prominently in Petra Pelz’s prairie garden, providing both the informal structure and the movement Petra loves. “They sway with the slightest of breezes,” she says, “giving an impression of lightness and playfulness. And they give each area of the garden the distinct character I’m looking for.”
From June onwards tall, tufts of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and the silver-pink plumes of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ dominate the view, providing a focal point that draws your attention away from garden borders, tempting you to venture ever further and discover its hidden treasures. They also help frame Petra’s richly woven tapestry of groundcovering perennials, which blankets the ground completely from spring through to autumn – so densely packed no weed would stand a chance.
Other grasses in Petra’s praire garden include Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Fontäne.
Written by Michael Breckwoldt
Pictures by Sabrina Rothe
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) stands between 3 and 8 feet high. Its wide, bluish-green leaves bring shades of purple or orange to the autumn landscape. Feathery large golden seed heads add further interest. Golden yellow flowers contrast effectively with the bluish stems. Birds and small mammals feed on the seeds.
This deer-resistant perennial grass blooms from August to October on prairies and dry slopes, and in open woods as far north Quebec and Manitoba and south to Florida and Arizona. Indian grass grows in sun and shade and accepts sand-, loam-, clay- or limestone-based soils. It does best in rich, well-drained soils. It won't reach its full height until just before flowering. Plant it in groups for best effect, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Native grasses make up the biggest plant component of true prairies. Cool-season grasses grow in spring and fall, while warm-season grasses wait for summer's heat before they begin growing. Grasses unfailingly appreciate sun, but some tolerate shade. These garden backbones are tough, and the native ones offer shelter to pollinators, but for a tidier look, cut them back in late winter. Here, 10 grasses that make great neighbors in the prairie- or meadow-style garden.
Photo by Doreen Wynja/Monrovia
(Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster')
A classic that should be standard in gardens, this cool-season grass wakes up early in spring and flowers with pink patterned plumes in early summer those plumes age to a wheat color that lasts through fall into winter, barring heavy snow. Upright 'Karl Foerster' blooms with pinkish-purple flowers. It grows up to 5 feet high and 30 inches wide in Zones 5 to 9.
Photo by Plants Noveau/Monrovia
(Andropogon gerardii 'Red October')
The major grass of the Midwest prairie, big bluestem has a dramatic presence. A warm-season grass, its tall stems of three-fingered flowers emerge to float above foliage late in the growing season. To go along with its classically upright form, the cultivar 'Red October' has scarlet foliage in fall after frost. It grows up to 6 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 4 to 9.
Photo by DEA/C.DELU/Contributor/GettyImages
(Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus')
Widely planted, warm-season miscanthus grasses make fantastic columnar accents in any landscape, including a meadow- or prairie-style garden. Zebra grass is an older cultivar that features horizontal bands of gold across its leaves and contrasting pink flowers in fall. It grows up to 8 feet high and 6 feet wide in Zones 5 to 9.
Photo by Visions Pictures/Getty Images
(Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea 'Sky Racer')
If it's living kinetic sculpture you're looking for in your garden, purple moor grass is for you. The cool-season grass emerges in early spring but doesn't put on a show until midsummer, when tall rays of translucent flowers appear, shimmering in the slightest breeze. This upright grass also works well in damp soil, unlike many grasses, which can flop. Grows up to 8 feet high and 4 feet wide in Zones 5 to 8.
Photo by Courtesy of Wayside
(Schizachyrium scoparium 'Standing Ovation')
A mounding grass to fill in the middle ground, little bluestem's fine, steely foliage provides a one-two punch of color and texture. Though the species can be floppy in gardens, the cultivar 'Standing Ovation' is bred to stand tall in full sun with sandy soil. Grows up to 4 feet high and 18 inches wide in Zones 3 to 8.
Photo by Annie Wells/Contributor/Getty Images
Wispy in all ways, pink hair grass is understated in leaf but spectacular in bloom. Its velvety magenta plumes of flower appear late in the summer, approaching fall. These turn to tan and can be left through winter as an accent on this warm-season mounding grass. Grows up to 3 feet high and wide in Zones 5 to 9.
Photo by Visions Pictures/Getty Images
A warm-season grass that wakes up early in the growing season, Korean feather grass is notable in the prairie plant palette in that it thrives even in part shade. The flowers of this mounding grass appear over a long period, from mid- to late summer they start out white, then age to pink and finally to the color of wheat, attractive even in winter. Grows up to 4 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 4 to 9.
(Carex muskingumensis 'Oehme')
A tough Midwestern native, palm sedge grows well in sun to part shade and sports leaves like streamers in whorls around a central stem. A low grower that proves wonderful things can come in small packages, this plant is actually a sedge, visually very similar to grasses. 'Oehme' adds gold-edged foliage to the mix. Grows up to 2 feet high and wide in Zones 4 to 8.
Photo by Doreen Wynja/Getty Images
(Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln')
'Hameln' fountain grass is a versatile, warm-season groundcover that's a good fit in more naturalistic landscapes. Its oaten cottontails of bloom appear in late summer and act as an excellent foil for fall foliage. Grows up to 30 inches high and wide in Zones 5 to 9.
(Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau')
A native that deserves much wider use, cool-season hair grass greets spring with leafy green. In July, its low-growing foliage nearly disappears in a translucent veil of apple-green flowers that age to gold. 'Goldtau' thrives even in light shade. Grows up to 2 feet high and 30 inches wide in Zones 4 to 9.
Sweat equity, of course, isn’t the only source for Three Rivers’ success. Much of the prairie work at Crow-Hassan and other district prairie restoration areas, like those within the Baker and Elm Creek reserves, has been sustained with grants from the Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program, funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Project grants are managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Three Rivers is completing its prairie planting at Crow-Hassan with a $370,000 grant through the Lessard-Sams Outdoors Heritage Council in 2014.
Back on a hillside near Crow-Hassan’s Prairie Lake, a bulbous bumblebee slowly hovered and dipped and hovered some more. It circled back on some flowering lousewort, one of the early bloomers. Moriarty circled back, too. The bee was another reminder of Crow-Hassan’s richness and complexity — with a necessary assist from humans. Putting down more diverse wildflowers and grasses have meant a better chance that something would arrive to use them. Once a nearby aspen stand was cleared years ago, a small wetland and its invertebrates attracted several pairs of sandhill cranes. Swans also have turned up.
All these years later Crow-Hassan remains a mosaic, pieces still thoughtfully and methodically put in place. The result is something beautiful, evolving, resilient, humming with life.
“There is nothing in nature that will take care of itself anymore,” Moriarty said. “We as humans have fragmented things and messed things up enough that it is our responsibility to maintain the habitats as they should be.”
Bob Timmons, editor of the Star Tribune's Outdoors Weekend section, worked previously editing, planning and designing the Sports section. He worked in news at the St. Paul Pioneer Press before joining the Star Tribune in 2005.