The benefits of native grasses to landscapes

Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 3:03 pm

Native warm-season perennial grasses, once abundant in prairies all across western, central and southern Minnesota, provide many benefits to landscapes in rural, suburban and urban areas alike:

  • Most native prairie grasses have deep roots that can grow five to fifteen feet below ground, and those roots provide benefits that improve soil structure, increase water infiltration and reduce runoff.
  • About one-third of the root system of each prairie plant is replaced by new root growth each year, so as dead roots decompose, vital organic matter and nutrients are returned to the soil.
  • Prairie grasses are tough, low-maintenance plants to consider for sunny areas where you’d like to reduce soil erosion or mowing and reap the added benefit of beautiful plants that provide habitat and food for small animals, frogs, toads, birds, butterflies and other insects.

Native prairie grasses are fully adapted to grow in our Midwestern landscape because they’ve been here for thousands of years. However, nearly all of the original prairies in the state have been replaced by agriculture, shallow-rooted nonnative forage grasses, turf grasses and development. Because native grasses play an important role in ecosystem restoration, efforts are being made to bring back these beneficial plants in prairie restoration projects and reintroductions. Work is taking place in parks, along roadsides, farms, open fields, corporate campuses and in areas as small as a private rain garden.

You can help restore native grasses to the landscape too! Consider planting them in any sunny, open area on your property. A sunny slope that’s difficult to mow is a great place to start. Other good places for native grasses are near fences, among flowers in a garden, on the upper slope of a rain garden or as a shoreline buffer on the edge of a pond, creek or lake.

Many native prairie grasses such as big bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass and prairie cord grass grow over five feet tall. The tall species are best suited to large landscape areas, because the plant can “lodge” (flop over in the wind). In yards and gardens try to use the shorter prairie grasses listed below. These are clump grasses that grow from 6 inches to three feet tall.

Native grasses have evolved with prairie fires and are rejuvenated by it. Cutting down the tops of prairie grasses in the early spring can be a substitute for fire. The tops can be used as a clean mulch around other plants to help retain soil moisture in the summer.

Try these drought-tolerant native grasses suitable for sunny areas.

  • Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) up to 8 inches tall
  • Junegrass (Koelera macrantha) up to 2 ft. tall
  • Prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepsis) 2 to 3 ft. tall
  • Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) up to 3 ft. tall
  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) 2 to 4 ft. tall

Find native prairie grasses at Minnetonka’s Native Plant Market and Eco Fun Fest Wednesday, June 5, at the Minnetonka City Hall parking lot, 14600 Minnetonka Boulevard (see the May Minnetonka Memo for more information) or find a native plant provider listed in the Natural Resources section.

Did you know?

The deep rich black soils of Minnesota prairies are a result of thousands of years of prairie plant root growth and mortality. Prairie soil is some of the best soil in the world for growing crops, which is why more than 90% of Minnesota’s prairie has been converted into agricultural uses.