Gardeners' Dirt: Beauty for all seasons with native grasses
By Beth Ellis - Victoria County Master Gardener
March 29, 2012 at midnight
Updated March 28, 2012 at 10:29 p.m.
Nothing is more beautiful than fields of native grasses waving in the wind. Their fresh blue-green spring hues followed by late summer crowns of ornamental flower heads are more than matched in glorious beauty by their golden tans and rusty reds of fall and winter.
Indeed, accented by stands of trees clothed in olive greens, tawny browns, and the skeletal grays of leafless branches, our native grasses belie the idea that this far south there is no fall or winter color. While not vividly bright like a child's crayon drawing - the colors are subtly deep.
And when cloaked in the dampness of fall and winter fog and mist, our native grasses lend our landscapes an air of ethereal mystery, just as nature begins its quiet retreat into wintry solitude. Given such beauty, who doesn't feel the pull to walk deep into our beckoning wild?
A little history
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the land around here looked virtually nothing like it does today. Back then, this area was covered in a 3- to 4-foot high sea of what naturalists call "Mixed Grass Prairie." Trees were few and far between, located mainly in the riparian zones associated with waterways. The stands, groves and thickets of trees dotting the landscape today are reflective of human land-use patterns over the last two-and-half centuries - in particular, the suppression of fire.
These days, only tantalizing pockets of the original prairie are to be seen outside our car windows as we hurry from town to town.
In recent years, however, homeowners have become more aware of the need to be water-wise. In the process, we have rediscovered the beauty of the hardy plants that have always been here. Check out the plants below to see how you can help restore native plant diversity (and feed hungry songbirds), and at the same time save water, save money and add sustainable beauty to your homes and property.
Drought-tolerant sun lovers
Little Bluestem is a lovely narrow-growing 2- to 4-foot-tall bunch grass that likes well-drained soil. It works well in containers and in the garden. By fall, the blue-green foliage turns a beautiful rust color, surmounted by delicate white seedheads. Little bluestem provides some of our most beautiful winter color. Cut it back in late winter to make way for new spring growth.
Side Oats Grama is the state grass of Texas. This narrow 2-to 3-foot-tall bunch grass produces oat-like seeds that distinctively line only one side of each bloom stalk. The foliage turns a rusty tan in fall.
Gulf Muhly (Pink Muhly Grass) grows 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide. Cloudy pink masses of blooms appear in late summer. It prefers well-drained soil. During the cool months the foliage turns tan, providing good winter interest.
Lindheimer's Muhly (Big Muhly) is a native of the Hill Country, and it provides a good alternative to introduced pampas grass. The 2- to 5-foot-tall foliage is topped by feathery white seedheads in fall. It prefers well-drained soils. During winter, break off spent flowerheads but don't cut back the foliage - otherwise, the plant may be slow to come back in spring.
Bamboo Muhly is technically native to Arizona and Northern Mexico, not Texas; however, this "near-native" is grown here as a lovely, non-invasive ornamental. The billowy, lacy foliage resembles that of unrelated bamboo. This mostly evergreen plant grows slowly to 5 feet high by 5 feet wide.
Bushy Bluestem is often seen growing in moist roadside ditches and low lying pastures. Growing from 2 to 5 feet in height, the name reflects the densely packed flowerheads produced in late summer. The foliage turns copper in fall and winter. Bushy bluestem does best around ponds and other moist areas.
Inland Sea Oats (River Oats) grow in 2- to 4-foot clumps. This graceful shade and moisture-loving plant can be found growing along wooded waterways. The bamboo-like foliage of this true riparian species will burn if given too much sun. The plant's greatest beauty lies in the lovely seed clusters that flutter and rustle in the breeze. In winter, the foliage turns tan - cut it back in early spring to encourage new growth.
Without a care
Native grasses can be used for a variety of landscape uses. Many are drought tolerant, sun loving, disease resistant and care free. Others that require a bit more moisture can be used to equal effect in those problematic soggy spots or heavily shaded areas in our yards.
One caveat to remember is that most, if not all, of these open-prairie beauties reproduce through both stolons and seeds, so keep a vigilant eye when weeding if you want to keep them confined.
There are plenty of stunning native or near-native grasses available that fit the needs already present in your landscape - so why not invest in those, rather than trying to modify your landscape to fit the finicky needs of non-native plants? Give native grasses a try - if you do, you will get magnificent effect for minimal care.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.