The many benefits of native grasses in your urban environment
June 25, 2020
June 25, 2020
Often overlooked in favor of flowering plants, native grasses are perfect for “hard-to-plant” urban sites
As the precipitous decline in pollinator populations continues, it is more important than ever that we plant native plants in our urban areas. A native plant is a plant that has occurred naturally in a geographic area without human aid or introduction. They are often used in pollinator gardens, the benefits of which have been proven and lauded.
Urban gardens are usually filled with native wildflowers that provide the essential food and shelter for our distressed pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. But people often overlook the benefits of other essential plants that contribute to the life of many of insect friends, such as native grasses. Native grasses bring multiple benefits, not only to insects, birds, and other native wildlife but also to general urban environments. Let’s look at some of the benefits of native grasses.
Grasses have fibrous roots which are great for holding soil in place in areas that are prone to erosion. This helps build organic matter in the soil and increase water infiltration. They are a low maintenance option and, once established, they don’t need additional water or fertilizer.
Native grasses have evolved to grow in a variety of environments, such as drought-prone soils, low-nutrient soils, or seasonally flooded areas, which makes them perfect for tough sites in urban areas. Drought-tolerant grasses, such as blue grama and side-oats grama, do well in heat-stricken areas near roadsides or as plantings in parking lots where they are exposed to sun all day long. Others, like lake sedge, tussock sedge, or bottlebrush sedge, can handle changes in water levels and can tolerate standing water, so work well in rain gardens that receive a lot of stormwater runoff.
Pennsylvania sedge and Eastern star sedge can grow in the dry soil in the shade of maple or spruce trees. Instead of amending heavy clay soils to make them tolerable for common landscaping plants, you can plant big bluestem or palm sedge. The large natives of tall-grass prairie, such as Indiangrass, big bluestem, and switchgrass, reach as tall as 6 feet and can act as a privacy screen or a wind break.
So, whatever tough site you may have, investigate if there is a native grass that can thrive in those conditions before amending the soils or changing the drainage pattern to accommodate other plants.
Native grasses provide multiple benefits to your urban and natural environment. So, don’t overlook native grasses in your own urban landscaping projects.
When people think of grasses, they often think of turf or weeds, but many native grass species bring a delightful aesthetic to any garden or landscape. They have varied shapes and elegant forms, such as prairie dropseed, which has fine textured leaves, deep green foliage, and grows a round bunch or Indiangrass that has a columnar shape growing sometimes 6 feet with soft seed heads that turn golden in the fall.
Some grasses offer brilliant seasonal color changes, like little bluestem that flush bright orange or switchgrass that can take on shades of maroon. Grasses also create beautiful soundscapes in the environment. The sound of prairie grasses rustling in the wind can be recreated in your yard or city park.
Native grasses also provide habitat for native wildlife, including birds and insects. Probably one of the least known benefits of native grasses is that they are host plants to certain species of butterflies during their larval stage. Two subfamilies of butterflies, grass skippers and browns/satyrs, feed on grasses and sedges when they are caterpillars. Some skipper caterpillars also build shelters in the grass plants where they live in during their entire larval stage.
It is important to plant these native species because the majority of butterfly and moth larvae are what we call specialists. Specialists feed off only a certain species, genus, or group of plants. A common example of this is the Monarch butterfly, whose host plants are in the milkweed genus. In order to survive during its caterpillar stage, it is vital for the Monarch to find milkweed plants. Similarly, some grass-feeding caterpillars only feed off a handful of native grass species. If we can plant more of these native plants, we can take control in rebuilding those butterfly populations. This, in turn, will rebuild bird populations that feed on caterpillars. It’s all connected.
Native grasses provide multiple benefits to your urban and natural environment. So, don’t overlook native grasses in your own urban landscaping projects. In return, they can improve your soil composition, provide easy maintenance, and create a habitat for insects that contribute to the ecosystem around us.
The grass species mentioned in this blog are native to the upper Midwest of the US, where I live and work. Contact me to find out which grasses are native to your region and which ones are right for your urban area. For more information on the benefits of native grasses check out the e-book I co-authored with Mary Hockenberry Meyer of the University of Minnesota, Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates.