When we think of grass in our yards, the image that arises is likely to be that of turf grass. But there are many other places for grasses in our landscapes, and many other species available besides the European turf grass that is used for lawn. Grasses that are native to our region not only add beauty and texture in our gardens but also provide multiple environmental benefits.
This class of plants not only refers to true grasses (which tend to be sun-loving) but also to sedges (which are more often shade-loving) and rushes. Their size can range from tiny to gigantic. Clumps of taller grasses provide structural interest as well as motion and sound as the wind rustles through them. Shorter ones work as groundcovers. Some are evergreen, and all provide winter interest and seeds for the birds.
In shady areas with minimal foot traffic, some native grasses can be used as a substitute for conventional lawns, though this would require planting a lot of little plants at 8-10 inch intervals and a good deal of attention during establishment, not just throwing down seed. Deep soil amendment is critical on a typical compacted former lawn area which lacks good nutrition and may have alkaline soil, and it can take a few years for such lawns to get established.
Native grasses play a critical role in the ecosystem, providing
Roots that are deeper than European turf grass and which do a better job at erosion control, breaking up hard soil and capturing stormwater
Dense root structures that create a barrier to the spread of aggressive plants, creating pockets where more delicate plants can live
Host plants for numerous species of butterflies, skippers, moths and others
Food sources for birds and other wildlife
Nesting material and cover.
Most of the plant material in a meadow consists of grasses, with colorful flowers tucked in between.
Several of the native grasses that are used as ornamentals are widely available in conventional nurseries, including the spectacular Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergii capillaris), pictured here. (Be careful where you plant it, though - it needs good drainage!) Others can be purchased at one of the nurseries that specialize in native plants. For details, check out the Plant NOVA Natives website.