The new selection of the North American native grass Sorghastrum nutans Golden SunsetTM developed at the University of Minnesota is now available for sale. This image was taken at Bachmans in Plymouth, MN. This native grass is 5 feet tall, has nice fall color and numerous yellow flowers. It flowers earlier than other cultivars of this species and is upright with olive green foliage.

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From left: ‘Bad Hair Day’, ‘Purple Tears’, ‘Blue Fountain’, ‘Apachie Rose’, ‘Shenandoah’ on Aug 13, 2021

New switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, cultivars continue to be introduced. Side by side comparison is one of the reasons the Grass Collection at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is popular for gardeners. Which one is your favorite?

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The Perennial Plant Association has announced little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is the 2022 Plant of the Year. Several cultivars of little bluestem are available including the University of Minnesota introduction Blue Heaven®. Blue Heaven® was rated the highest performance of the 5 cultivars in the National Grass Trials with 9 states in 2012-2015.

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Lack of rainfall in 2021 means miscanthus is about 1/3 to 1/2 normal height by late July.

Flamingo, left; Hercules, center, and Rotsilber right show effect of drought with reduced height
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Blue and pink….Helictotrichon and Calamagrostis show off their blue foliage and pink flowers in this photo taken on June 29, 2021. Pastel colors are not usually what comes to mind with grasses, but this photo shows the diversity of color in grasses.

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Earlier this spring, weather was cool or even cold for May in Minnesota. Hard to recall with the current endless 90 degree days. But blue oat grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens, remembers and grew very well in those cool days. Native to alpine regions in southwestern Europe, this grass likes cool temps and well drained or dry sites. The first photo below was taken June 8, 2021 at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Note the robust icy blue foliage from the cool days in the previous month and even a few flowers.

The best flowers I have ever seen on blue oat grass plants were growing in Vail, Colorado, second photo below, where the days are almost always cool. These images almost look like two different grasses!

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Shade tolerant vigorous plants are useful for tough sites in the garden. Two non-native sedges that are hardy and rhizomatous are black-flowered sedge Carex nigra ‘Variegata’ and Carex flacca ‘Blue Zinger’, blue sedge. Flowers appear early on these two sedges, shown here on May 18, 2021. Seedlings have not been found in Minnesota from these plants, but their strong rhizomes are not to be underestimated in a garden setting. Plant with care in a location that needs a rhizomatous plant.

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With the new information that native skipper butterfly larva overwinter at the base of native grasses, we cut these plants back in the spring at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum instead of burning. We leave about 6 inches at the base of the plants. The tops go into compost or are burned. Little bluestem shown below, grows better after a burn, perhaps due to drying out the crown and reducing fungal pathogens. A tradeoff: cutting back favors pollinators, burning favors the grass plants.

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Cover image for Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates

Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates is now available through the University of Minnesota’s Press Books. With help and guidance from University of Minnesota librarian Kristen Mastel, authors Diane M. Narem and Mary Hockenberry Meyer released the new digital version of this book in November 2020. 

Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates and a Guide to the Butterflies They Support was originally published in May 2018. The previous version was only available on Apple platforms, limiting who could access the information.

The new version is available for free from the University’s digital library collection. You can download the entire book or read it online.

The book is divided into five chapters:

  • Introduction to Grasses
  • Benefits of Native Grasses
  • Common Native Grasses of the Northern Midwest
  • Planting, Maintenance and Management
  • Grass Selection and Butterfly Pairings

Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates, is written for inexperienced as well as seasoned gardeners, landscape designers, garden center employees, and anyone interested in native grasses that grow well in cold climates. New information on the benefits of native grasses including their importance as host plants for native Lepidoptera is included. Combinations of specific grasses used by larvae and perennials that the adult butterflies feed on is new and timely information.

Information in the book is based on research conducted by Narem and Meyer. Tables, plant lists and numerous illustrations are also included.

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The 2019 USDA Census of Horticulture Specialities is complete and figures for ornamental grasses were $178,791,000 in sales for 1,991 businesses. Grasses continue to grow in sales, up 13% from $158,061,021 in 2014, and $124,261,118 in 2009. In 2019 Florida had the top sales with more than $11M, followed by California with $7.5M. Eights states sold between $1 and 2 million in ornamental grasses: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Texas. Grasses continue to increase as important landscape plants.

Grass display at an independent garden center. Photo courtesy of Hoffman Nursery.

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