Grasses for backyard prairie garden

susanswoods(Z6 VA)September 15, 2006

Would you give me some advice on planting the miniature prairie garden I'm developing? I'm trying to figure the quantity of native grass seeds I need and the best approach to getting them established.

Last winter I winter-sowed a lot of forb seeds in flats and got a good germination rate. Some the transplants died during the summer heat but I have quite a few in pots to plant out next spring. I will do some more this year.

For grasses I plan to start with three that are native to this area and supposed to be suitable for the soil and moisture. I don't want the very tallest ones so I have chosen Little bluestem, Prairie dropseed (Sprobolus heterolepsis) and Bottlebrush (Elymus hystrix/Hystrix patula).

This year I laid out a teardrop shaped area that covers approximately 1000 square feet in my backyard. This is zone 6, full sun, mesic in spring to dry in summer. It's Virginia clay soil and a neighbor enlightened me to why I was hitting a near impenetrable layer about 8 inches down in places  an old railway bed ran through there years back.

This year I killed the grass with glyphosate herbicide and have repeated applications every month or so. Used a broadfork to break up the soil to about 12 inches. It has received most of this year's compost and fresh yard waste. By happy chance our town changed trash pickup rules and my neighbors have been bringing me grass clippings all season. It looks like I will have a good 4 or 5 inches of compost when I rake it out. I will need to do a couple of applications of herbicide in the spring before I plant. I have some awful perennial weeds to get under control. By the time I could direct sow grasses it will be getting too hot and dry here.

I would like to have some established plugs of the three grasses to sow next spring along with the forb plants. I then thought I would wait until fall and sow some more seeds to flesh it out. I got some great plugs of ceanothus and asarum from Ion Exchange last year. They do sell plugs of grasses or I could try buying seeds now and winter-sowing them in plug trays.

Do you think I should buy plugs?

Start my own plugs?

Wait all the way until next fall and direct sow the grasses?

How much of each kind of grass seed should I buy?

I know this is long and rambling but I would appreciate your advice.

Susan Hagen

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If I follow your plan, you need grass plants to mix with the year-old forbs that you will plant next spring. If so, probably the best bet would be to winter seed your selected grasses in flats, then plug them in next spring or early summer. They will be small, but I think you can expect a high success rate.

It sounds like your soil preparation has been thorough. I think you should be careful about additional earth-turning and compost applications from now on. You might end up adding (or unearthing) more weed seeds. Just let the area settle in, let the compost decompose, and whack your perennial weeds when they appear next year.

Depending on how many grass and forb plugs you have, you might want to over-seed your planting area (with both grass and forb seeds) next fall/winter to fill in around your plugs.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2006 at 2:38PM
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susanswoods(Z6 VA)

Thanks so much John. Yes, I've cut off adding any more plant material to the area. I'm just going to let it finish decomposing through the winter and not disturb the soil again.

One more question, how much of each of the grass seed should I buy? I didn't quite understand some of the websites info on coverage.

Does a half-pound of little bluestem and a couple of ounces of the others sound right?


    Bookmark   September 15, 2006 at 2:44PM
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Judy_B_ON(Ontario 5B)

The websites that list by the punnd for seed are referring to the amount you need if you are direct seeding in the ground. You will need far less if you are germinating seedlings and growing plugs.

Bottlebrush grass is not suitable for a full sun prairie. It is a woodkland grass. I don't know what other grasses are native to your area but shorter grasses suitable for a prairie include side oats gramma, switch grass, virginia rye and Canada Wild Rye.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   September 16, 2006 at 8:01PM
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susanswoods(Z6 VA)

Thanks Judy. I'll probably try the side oats gramma instead. The others are native here too but the side oats has an interesting seed head. There's something that springs up in my perennial border that I'm pretty sure is Canada Wild Rye so I'll probably have some of that without even trying.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2006 at 11:11AM
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froggy(z4/5 WI)

Virginia wild rye has a 'cuter' seedhead than does CWR. i would mix the two. frankly i dont really know if VWR has anything to do with Virginia but...

indian grass can be a nice addition. maybe a plug or 5 would be a nice addition. it doesnt get too tall that u cannot stand it.

prairie brome is a handsome plant. it grows well from seed. its short and cute in a fluffy,furry sort of way.

im fond of LBS and prairie drop seed. i could roll around in those two all day and night.

another neat grass is porcupine grass but read up on it before u plant it or ull take ur eye out.

switchgrass is a hadsome plant also. but if u dont like the aggressive nature of it, there is a horticulture variety called 'Shenandoah' its a smallish non-fertile type that has a bright red fall color.


Here is a link that might be useful: prairie brome

    Bookmark   September 23, 2006 at 11:06AM
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