As I work to get rid of my lawn in favor of growing more perennials and edible crops, meadow grasses are among some of the native plants I’ve been adding to the garden. Meadow plantings have become increasingly popular in the home landscape for plenty of good reasons. Once established, a meadow garden can provide food and habitat for songbirds and insects—particularly many kinds of butterflies and moths.
And there’s no need to mow meadow grass week after week, which frees up time and helps to reduce carbon emissions. What’s more, meadow grasses do a ton of heavy-lifting underground by slowing and filtering stormwater runoff. They’re often used in rain garden plans. Eventually, areas that have been converted into prairies also have healthier soil—not to mention that they’re simply lovely to look at year-round. In this article, I’m going to share some meadow grass options for your garden. Depending on your space, there are options for low-growing, medium, and tall grasses.
What are meadow grasses?
Meadow grasses are a mix of re-seeding annuals and perennial herbaceous plants that have long been used as livestock fodder. When grown in conjunction with one another in a pasture or grassland, these deep-rooting grasses, along with grass-like sedges and rushes, form a diverse, resilient plant community.
How meadow grasses are different from turf grasses
Unlike meadow grasses, most turf grasses require more time and attention from us to survive. Because they’re naturally anchored much more deeply within the soil, meadow grasses are better protected against the heat, drought, pests, and weeds which plague ordinary lawns. They’re also much better at sequestering carbon—an environmental bonus for all of us.
Warm-season grasses vs cool-season meadow grasses
Just as some of the veggies we plant in our gardens prefer certain soil temperatures, so, too, do native grasses. For instance, cool-season meadow grasses like Canada wild rye, Virginia wild rye, and assorted fescues will grow quickly earlier in the season when daytime temperatures are in the 60- to-70-degree Fahrenheit zone and the ground is still relatively cool. But once those pleasant spring days get hotter and drier, cool-season grass typically goes dormant.
Advantages of including native grasses in a garden
The root systems of mature native grasses can be surprisingly deep. This helps these tough beauties to hang on during periods of extreme weather and drought which, in turn, mitigates soil erosion. And, once established, neither the matting nor the clumping meadow grasses are much bothered by insect pests or weeds.
Countless birds are attracted to native grasses for their nutritious seeds and the cover they provide. And, mix native grasses with milkweed, New England asters, goldenrod, and other nectar-rich flowers, and you’ve got a butterfly paradise.
Types of meadow grasses
From dainty clumping varieties to bold, eight-foot-tall sprays, there are meadow grasses to suit a mix of site conditions. While some of these natives flourish in full sun, plenty of others, such as northern river oats, will tolerate some degree of shade.
As for their look and feel, varieties like switchgrass have a very rigid, upright posture while others—think prairie dropseed and buffalo grass—look relaxed enough to serve as groundcovers. There are also shorter-lived, bunching grasses which, after a few years, may be supplanted by more aggressive, neighboring grasses. (These more dominant meadow grasses can spread thanks to a profusion of seeds or, in some cases, a robust tangle of underground runners.)
Short grasses for a meadow
Although sedges aren’t technically grasses, these grass-like plants do make wonderful, short-statured additions to meadow gardens. Here are some to consider, as well as a couple of “real grass” suggestions.
- Plains oval sedge (Carex brevior): Plains oval sedge remains under 12 inches high with coarse, upright tufts of blades. It adapts to sun or part shade, and wet or dry soils.
- Ivory sedge (Carex eburnea): Ivory sedge measures just six to eight inches tall with dense clumps of soft leaves that have a mop-like appearance.
- Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica): Pennsylvania sedge stays low and has fine-textured foliage, making it a great lawn alternative that does not require mowing.
- Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis): This is a true grass with pretty, cascading foliage that tops out at about three feet tall. However it does have a tendency to remain flopped over and low to the ground. Prairie dropseed blooms beginning in late summer and continues through the fall.
- Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula): This is another of the true meadow grasses, which stays nice and compact. The plant’s seed spikelets dangle daintily off of one side of each stalk, as if they were riding sidesaddle, and the grass’s reddish-orange florets show up in late summer.
Medium-height meadow grasses
- Purple lovegrass (Eragrostis pectinacea): Purple lovegrass is a medium-height plant that is perfect for working in near shorter grass varieties. It reaches about two feet in height and performs best in moderately moist to dry soils.
- June grass (Koeleria macrantha): The height of June grass is similar to purple lovegrass, but it prefers dry conditions.
- Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium): Also known as “river oats,” this grass grows to about three feet high. It is a very forgiving grass that is shade-tolerant and likes “wet feet.”
- Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix): Another shade-tolerant, medium-height grass, bottlebrush can grow up to four feet tall with a habit that’s not as bushy as other meadow grasses.
- Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium): Three-to-four-foot high clumps and fluffy seed heads mix especially well with wildflowers; a late-summer bloomer, it prefers drier soil conditions.
- Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis): A mature height of two to three feet with sideways facing flowers, blue grama grass is drought resistant and easy to grow from seed.
Tall grasses for a meadow planting
Tall meadow grasses can lend real structure and drama to the landscape. Each of these can reach between four and six feet at maturity. These varieties work really well when placed behind shorter grasses or when mixed in with taller wildflowers, such as Joe-Pye weed. Here are some of my favorite tall meadow grasses.
- Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus): Virginia wild rye produces stiff, foxtail-like blooms and reaches up to four feet tall. It blooms earlier in the season than most other meadow grasses.
- Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum): Switchgrass has bluish-green foliage, airy late-summer blooms, and tremendous fall color. This fine-textured grass is clump-forming and grows to five or six feet.
- Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans): This bunching grass grows from six to eight feet tall with soft, plume-like flowers that stand on tall stems above the leaves late in the season.
- Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi): Depending on your growing conditions, big bluestem can grow to heights of six to eight feet. It turns a wonderful color in fall.
Provided you have enough space, large plantings of a mixture of tall meadow grasses is well worth considering. Changing to shades of orange, copper, and bronze in the fall, their seed heads nodding with the wind, tall grasses provide a high degree of winter interest. (Just keep in mind that many of these heavy hitters are also potentially heavy seed spreaders!)
How to use grasses in a backyard meadow design
When working with meadow grasses, landscape designers first try to match site characteristics with specific plant needs. If you’re thinking about incorporating native grasses into a backyard meadow design, here are some important factors to consider:
- Light: How many hours of direct sunlight does the area get? How shady are your shadiest spots? Remember, different meadow grasses will tolerate varying degrees of shade.
- Stormwater runoff and soil drainage: Which areas, if any, tend to develop standing water? Which spots remain dry?
- Sensitive areas: The slope of your land and quality of your soil can contribute to soil erosion. Make special note of areas with topsoil loss and install larger swaths of erosion-controlling meadow grasses here.
- Uses for the land: Do you still need some areas for kids or pets to play? You might choose to fill these in with repeating clumps of extra-tough, low-growing native grasses or sedges. Need a windbreak or a privacy screen? Try a mix of tall grasses or use multiple plantings of a single tall variety.
Knowing what your space requires, such as mostly shade-lovers, plants that prefer dry land, etc., will help you to zero in on the best mix of grasses for you.
Growing from seeds, plugs, or larger plants
While growing a meadow garden from seed is the least costly route, it can take a few years to really fill in and become established. You can plant meadow grass seed mix directly over an existing lawn or over cleared areas. Ideally, you should plant seeds in late fall, since some grasses require cold weather to help jumpstart germination when conditions are just right. Adding a temporary “nurse crop” of annual oats or rye along with your native grass mix will help keep your seeds in place—and keep competing weeds at bay. After fall sowing, you’ll want to begin looking for tiny native grass shoots in the spring.
Planting native grass plugs or larger, container-grown grasses is a much faster—albeit more expensive—method. Most varieties are best planted in early spring. You’ll need to space and dig individual holes for each, but they will take off much more quickly than direct-seeded areas will. Be sure to read how much a grass will spread when it reaches maturity, so you know how much space to leave between plants.
Caring for meadow grasses
Meadow grasses will need the most attention from you within their first couple of years. Early steps you’ll need to take include watering young plug and container plants after planting until they’ve successfully rooted in your soil (read plant tags and seed packets carefully). You must also cut back any invading weeds you notice growing amongst your new grass shoots so that these don’t have the chance to set—and spread!—their seed.
As for long-term maintenance, keep any invasive shrub or tree growth you notice cut back. Once your meadow is well-established, you need only mow or cut it down it once annually in very early spring.
Other options to consider for a native plant garden
- The unique stages of prairie smoke
- Native white asters
- Growing perennial basil
- Winter interest plants
Pin this to your native plants inspiration board.