Native Nebraska Grass Guide

August 13, 2009 at 8:25 AM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living | 2 Comments
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Earlier, I did a post about how native Nebraska landscaping is the bomb. I promised a post about grasses that grow well in Nebraska, and it’s been a while since I updated, so here it is.

What’s so great about native grass? Well, there are a lot of things. First of all, it’s just pretty stuff really. It’s great for landscaping, and the effect is dazzling when it is used correctly. I’ll try to provide some visual justification in the form of pictures. I’ll use UNO’s campus as an example because, as it turns out, the UNO campus is a beautiful example of Nebraska landscaping (in some ways) in the summer time (when no real classes are in session).

Secondly, it’s great for the environment. Native grass provides a number of environmental benefits. It uses less water because its roots are adapted for Nebraska life: they reach far below the ground level, penetrating deep enough to reach the water table. This means you never need to water them, even during the dry season. The second great thing about the roots is that they provide a sort of natural filter for groundwater. When runoff and rainfall infiltrate the ground in the city, they often take with them an assortment of things that ought not to be there (like runoff from roads – think chemicals from cars and leaks). Plants, especially native grasses with their extensive, deep root system, have the ability to filter a lot of this pollution out naturally. They are so hardy that many of these species can be used in rain gardens, where the purpose of the plants is to filter tons of pollution out of the water. And finally, native grass provides a sheltered habitat for lots of small wildlife, and the seeds provide untold amounts of food for birds and small rodents.

So anyway, if you can work native grass into your flowerbeds as a border or a backdrop, or you just feel like helping out the environment in general, here’s a quick list of the major grasses that do well in Nebraska, along with their features and characteristics.

Big Bluestem is the king of tallgrass, and a surprising number of people have actually heard of it.

Big Bluestem is the king of tallgrass, and a surprising number of people have actually heard of it.

Big bluestem is such a majestic grass that a surprisingly large number of people have actually heard of it. Growing to heights of 6 feet and up, it truly is the king of tallgrasses. When the pioneers first herded cattle to the midwest, they noted that the cows had a very pronounced preference for the grass. Big bluestem is also called turkey’s foot after the shape of the seed heads.

Like all native grasses, it is hardy perennial plant. The grass initially forms in dense clumps that mature to a purple-blue color at the base, giving it its name. It will grow under a wide variety of soil, moisture and light conditions, but prefers generally dry soil and full sun, like most prairie grass. The plant spreads via seed and rhizome, which are small bulbs that propagate below the soil. It begins growth in early spring and sends seeds up around early-late summer, around the third week of July at the earliest. Being such a tall grass, it makes excellent borders and backdrops, and it is quite a sight.

Little bluestem is the state grass for Nebraska. It is very similar to big bluestem.

Little bluestem is the official state grass for Nebraska. It is very common and grows to about three feet high at maturity. It prefers poor soil conditions to reduce competition from taller grass. The grass forms in clumps, much like its larger cousin, and spreads in the same manner: seeds and rhizomes. The seed heads are not as distinctive as those of big bluestem, however.

Little bluestem reaches its mature size in the middle of summer, and begins to produce seed heads somewhat later than big bluestem. It is a very attractive red during the fall. While most native grasses tend to mat down in the winter, little bluestem stays upright and, usually, maintains its fall foliage. This makes little bluestem a special grass because it can be planted for fall/winter color and cover. Here’s a picture of what it looks like during the winter.

Note the clump nature of little bluestem.  Also, note that it remains upright in winter and retains its fall foliage.  It can be planted more or less densely.

Note the clump nature of little bluestem. Also, note that it remains upright in winter and retains its fall foliage. It can be planted more or less densely.

Can you believe this is buffalo grass?  Kind of looks like Kentucky Bluegrass to me...

Can you believe this is buffalo grass? Kind of looks like Kentucky Bluegrass to me...

I’ve probably expounded on my personal fascination with buffalo grass a great many times before, but you are about to find out why I like it so much. The picture above shows a beautiful piece of a buffalo grass lawn. This picture is really important because it shows how a great lawn can be established, virtually free of maintenance, and still look great without being Kentucky Bluegrass!

So, the wonders of buffalo grass are many. If you plant a lawn of buffalo grass, it is possible to have a great-looking lawn with no water management necessary and little to no mowing, depending on how favorable the soil conditions are to buffalo grass. As it turns out, buffalo grass is the pickiest of the native grasses in Nebraska. It has a few requirements: no standing water for long periods of time, as much sun as possible (morning sun is critical), and Nebraska-type drainage. You don’t want to plant buffalo grass in an area with poor drainage, but you don’t want the drainage to be too great either (don’t let the soil be too coarse, like gravel or large sand particles). The pH requirements for soil are fairly normal for grass.

When you seed a buffalo grass lawn, the seeding must be done carefully and timed correctly. Seed the lawn in the spring and summer once the soil has warmed up. Prevent too much competition from weeds and other likely companions. Once the lawn is established, it is actually best not to water it frequently. It doesn’t usually exceed 4 inches in height, but if you live in the warmer southern states it might. In Nebraska, it grows to the perfect height for an “acceptable” lawn. If you can live with the slight variations in height, you’ll need to mow MUCH less frequently.

Once your buffalo grass lawn becomes established, it will begin to spread and fill in the gaps on its own. It forms a dense sod through the creation of rhizomes, stolons and fine roots. It is resistance to drought, heat and cold, and it is a hardy perennial. For your further judgement, here are some more pictures of buffalo grass lawns.

Buffalo grass has thicker leaves than Kentucky Bluegrass.

Buffalo grass has thicker leaves than Kentucky Bluegrass.

Buffalo grass isnt quite as jade green as Kentucky Bluegrass.

Buffalo grass isn't quite as jade green as Kentucky Bluegrass.

As my NDOR correspondent was quick to point out, plantings like this are common in the midwestern states, and Nebraska is no exception.

As my NDOR correspondent was quick to point out, plantings like this are common in the midwestern states, and Nebraska is no exception. This is an Indiangrass planting along a highway with limited mowing practices in place.

Indiangrass is extremely popular in landscaping in Nebraska already. The UNO campus is littered with happy little clumps of the stuff. It flowers fairly early, and by late summer and early fall, the seed heads resemble wheat in the wind. Indiangrass is one of the most widely spread of the native grasses due to its popularity with landscapers, and the Nebraska Department of Roads seeds it quite heavily along the highways of the state.

Indiangrass is a tallgrass, growing from 4 to 6 feet tall. It can grow in a wide variety of soil conditions and can tolerate standing water for brief periods of time. It prefers full sun but will grow in any but the worst of shade conditions.

Switchgrass is a dark green tallgrass and forms in very dense clumps.

Switchgrass is an interesting tallgrass. It is much darker green than most of the other prairie grasses and it tends to give the eye the illusion of shade. It forms very dense clumps and is great for an intermediate border, along with some taller grasses mixed in. I’ll have a picture of how UNO uses the switchgrass for a great border effect in a few days, I promise. Switchgrass grows fairly tall, but usually shorter than big bluestem. It tends to be anywhere from 4 to 8 feet tall, sometimes taller in favorable lowland conditions.

Switchgrass is a great example of how native grasses have huge root systems.  For scale, the grass above ground is at least 4 feet tall, if not taller.

Switchgrass is a great example of how native grasses have huge root systems. For scale, the grass above ground is at least 4 feet tall, if not taller.

In the interest of keeping this post somewhat shorter than the rest, as many of my readers have complained of length that they feel is unwarranted and unnecessary (which I take issue with), I will show a few more of the native grasses here with a shorter description. I have covered the bigger, more glamorous native grasses. The rest are suited to special locations, for the most part.

If you live in an area where floods are frequent and the water table is high, you need a grass to handle this kind of environment. Prairie cordgrass is famous for such endeavors.

Clumps of prairie cordgrass chilling in the water.

Clumps of prairie cordgrass chilling in the water.

Eastern gamagrass can grow in dry conditions or in standing water.

Eastern gamagrass can grow in dry conditions or in standing water.

If you live in the western part of the state, where the soil tends to be sandy, you have many options available for native landscaping. The sandhills are even better, as these grasses once dominated this region of our state.

Sand bluestem is the sandhill inhabitant of the bluestem family.  It is a medium-height grass at maturity that does very well in sandy soils.

Sand bluestem is the sandhill inhabitant of the bluestem family. It is a medium-height grass at maturity that does very well in sandy soils.

Sand lovegrass is a medium-height grass.  Its seeds are very fine and, according to an ancient pamphlet I found, it has 1.5 million seeds per pound.

Sand lovegrass is a medium-height grass. Its seeds are very fine and, according to an ancient pamphlet I found, it has 1.5 million seeds per pound.

Prairie Sandreed is an extremely tough grass that can grow almost anywhere.  If youve had trouble establishing plants in a certain area, give this a try.

Prairie Sandreed is an extremely tough grass that can grow almost anywhere. If you've had trouble establishing plants in a certain area, give this a try.

This covers the majority of Nebraska grasses. There are a few others: sideoats grama, blue grama and western wheatgrass. You may want to take a look at those too. Canada wildrye also grows in Nebraska, but it is fairly rare because it does not live long and does not spread easily here.

I hope you take a second look at the possibility of planting native grass the next time you are pondering what plant you should use to fill the blank space in your flowerbed. Native grasses are so diverse and hardy that they can serve almost any need. You can use them to grow in places where the soil is so poor that nothing else will grow (or maybe just weeds grow there). You can choose grasses to any height requirement you need, creating majestic, unique visual barriers with the taller kinds and tame borders or even lawns with the shortgrass types. You can use them in rain gardens or plant them at strategic locations to provide captivating seasonal displays: spring, summer or fall, and even winter with some species.

Incorporating native grasses into your flowerbeds and lawn is easier than you think, and it is actually quite pleasant to look at, too. I kept this post short in the interest of my less patient readers, so I hope that I have provided a sufficient amount of information. As with anything, you can find further useful information on any of these species via the greater internet. Keep your eyes peeled for a wildflowers post coming up in the future, too.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Good Stuff. Thanks for your insight.

  2. Wow! This is one of the most useful blogs we have ever run across on this subject. Basically excellent. I am also a specialist in this topic so I can understand your effort.


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