Native Grasses


Courtesy of Mike Heath

Above: Native grasses in the area.

When I decided on the subject for this week I never thought it would still be winter at the end of April. It sure feels like it though. It's cold and snowy. So why am I talking about grass? I mean native grasses, not the other kind. Because grasses affect all of us. It could be in a lawn, on the prairie, or even with allergies, but we all come into contact with grass at some point. Last year I wrote about lawn care and maybe I will again this year but right now my focus is more on the native grasses.

When most people look out across the prairie they just see grass. And some weeds. And some flowers in the spring. Sometimes in the summer. But what most people don't see is the wide variety of plants that make up our short grass prairie. Our house was set on native prairie when it was built. Of course now we've got neighbors all around us and it's more of a subdivision, but we still have our small piece of prairie that is just like it's always been. A couple of years ago I decided to see how many types of grass and plants I could identify on the back side of the property that has seen no activity, ever. It is still just as it has been for generations. Native prairie. I was able to identify 10 different species of grasses and a few forbs. Yet, for all of that there were at least as many that I couldn't identify. Some of the grasses are: blue gramma, green needlegrass, bottlebrush squirrel tail, prairie junegrass, buffalo grass, western wheatgrass, timothy, little bluestem, cheatgrass, and smooth brome.

On the wildflower side it seems to change from year to year. The only two that are consistent are the prairie coreopsis and larkspur. Coreopsis is that small yellow flower that just seems to be all over in the spring, painting the prairie brilliant yellow. Larkspur, well, what to say about larkspur. It is one of the most beautiful flowers on the prairie in my mind but it is also one of the more deadly. It has a gorgeous purple flower but is poison to cattle. It's one of those plants that you have to get rid of if it's in a pasture.

Then there are the ever persistent weeds. Canadian thistle and dalmatian toadflax lead the list of hated and despised weeds although there are many others. Maybe it's because they are so hard (impossible) to eradicate. This year will tell the tale on the toadflax. For the last few years, the goats have kept it eaten off and I've had none in the pasture. Now the goats are gone so we'll see if it comes back. Most likely it will because the neighbors still have toadflax. There are some other weeds like death cama, an onion-like lilly, and milkvetch (locoweed), but very few. Several other thistles but they aren't much trouble.

Grasses fall into a couple of categories. To begin with there are the cool and warm season grasses. Unfortunately, cheatgrass is a cool season grass so it's already starting to green up. That makes it more competitive than the warm season grasses. It gets a head start in the spring. Buffalo grass, on the other hand, is a warm season grass. If you plan to use native grasses for your lawn this difference means a lot in the type of grass to use. Cool season grasses will green up earlier, late March to early April, but will go to seed sooner and appear to go dormant over the heat of the summer. They will usually green up again in September just in time to go dormant for the winter. Warm season grasses will wait until late May to June to green up but will hold through the summer. They do tend to go dormant earlier in the fall. That's where a good diversity in the grasses is important. With a wide variety of grass species you can keep the lawn looking good longer. Then, whether in the lawn or pasture, the wide diversity is important for disease resistance and resistance to the environment. The mixture of native grasses help each other survive by such means as holding snow and providing shade. Moisture is always welcome here and by providing shade the ground is protected and stays cooler. This is a major reason not to mow your prairie areas.

Another characteristic to consider is whether the grass is a bunch grass or a sod grass. A sod grass is definitely preferable in a lawn because it sends out rhizomes and stays fairly smooth and even. Bunch grass forms separate clusters with the plant growing above ground level. This leaves the ground rough and bumpy. Riding across bunch grass in a four wheeler can make it feel like your teeth are going to bounce right out of your mouth.

Native grasses can make a pretty good lawn if you choose the right varieties. I was checking out seed last week at Home Depot and I was somewhat disappointed with what I found. To begin with it was way too expensive in my mind. Then I looked at the composition, what types of grass were included. Most were only marginally adapted to our natural moisture level. Rye was included in most which wasn't much of a surprise. Rye is an annual and is included because it germinates and grows fast. That way it can protect the slower grasses as they start to come up. Bluegrass was a common grass that really isn't very well suited to our climate. It's beautiful but is best suited for a warmer climate with a lot more precipitation. You can grow it here but you'll spend a lot of time and money caring for it. Most only had a few types of grasses included, not good for the diversity preferred here. The best primary grass I've found for a lawn in Laramie County is buffalo grass. It will not give you the lush green lawn that bluegrass will but is suited to our environment and takes little care once it is established. Since it only grows about eight inches tall you don't even have to mow it unless to just have to get out the lawn mower. It is a very coarse grass though so it won't feel soft to the touch.

The best way to go in my mind is to select the grasses you want then have the seed custom mixed. True, there is nobody in Laramie County that I've found that will mix seed for you but Pawnee Buttes Seed in Greeley will and they're a lot less expensive. They'll even add wildflower seeds if you like. They have published a free booklet on grasses that you can use to select your preferences. I use their guide as a valuable tool when people call to ask advice on grass. It's available on their website.

Whatever your choice of the hundreds of varieties of native grasses available, you really won't go wrong. Native grasses have survived here for thousands of years because they thrive in the harsh environment of Wyoming. Think about it. Buffalo grass survived millions of buffalo stampeding across the plains and is still one of the more prevalent grasses found on the native prairie. If you have any questions about grasses ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do.


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