Garden Notes: Native grasses

For Island gardens, there are species of grasses that occur here naturally


Seasonal changes are taking place, including killing frost and the time — clocks set back one hour to Eastern Standard Time. Swamp maples and sumac are ruddy in the landscape, and native grasses, especially little bluestem, create a warm toffee glow over unmowed meadows.

But please, morning glories in November? Thanks, but no thanks. Mine are still in full flourish, clambering over some rhododendrons.

2022 Perennial Plant of the Year  

The grasses as horticultural subjects are emblematic of autumn. They catch low-slanting autumn sunlight and extend late season interest in the garden. Grasses have much value for a range of wildlife. As it happens, the Perennial Plant Association, which exists to promote great perennial plants, has chosen little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium and its cultivars, as the Plant of the Year (PPY) for 2022. (See Native to the Vineyard, warm-season little bluestem is a great PPY choice! It tolerates sandy soils and drought, is an acceptable forage grass, and changes colors beautifully throughout the gardening season. It provides food, shelter, and nesting material for native bees, butterflies, and other arthropods, birds and small mammals, and is even suitable for green roofs.

Grasses for gardens

After a decades-long love affair with large, introduced, decorative grasses, the gardening world has started to recognize their drawbacks, principally invasiveness, which renders them a whole lot less “delightful.”

In landscapes and designs where grasses are appropriate (that is, almost all) there are many North American natives that do not present those problems. For Island gardens little bluestem and switchgrass are paramount, but hardly the whole story. Appropriate to managed landscapes and gardens, several species of Andropogon (big bluestem) occur here naturally, with the attributes of little bluestem but in a bigger package. Consider also Deschampsia, Eragrostis, Muhlenbergia, Sorghastrum, and Sporobolus: they contribute greatly to the grass options for sunny sites, while numerous North American sedges (Carex), Chasmanthium, and Deschampsia are shade tolerant ones.

Tall switch grasses, such as Panicum virgatum “Dallas Blues” (pictured), create viable privacy screening with less work than woody hedges.

I referred to Hoffman Nursery’s comprehensive Catalogue of Grasses for information cited here, Many other grass species endow gardens with aesthetic and environmental qualities. However, I named native ones because the Island’s managed landscape is currently under assault by landscaping that veers toward the mistakes of mainland suburbs.

Today’s debris, tomorrow’s compost

That was quite a storm! The gale of 27 October yielded 3.5 inches of rain in my rain gauge; it may have been under-counted due to wind. Even so, my area had only minor puddling (soils are still dry by observation). The wind was fierce, especially on the Island’s north side, tearing tops out of trees and rending limbs from them.

In the aftermath, the debris and shredded leaves littering everywhere make a good basis for leaf-mold and compost. This is phenomenal stuff, do not discard. As readers of Garden Notes know, I advocate for leaving biomass where possible on the land that generates it. This is what has formed our soil over eons. For those who wish to grow, removing it to the dump is really counter-productive, and like throwing away gold.

In response to the question of “How is this possible on small lots?” solutions are composting and maybe building a hugelkultur. Check out this article from the Old Farmers’ Almanac: It is astonishing how quickly the material breaks down and is ready to use as mulch or to improve the beds where you garden.

Planting evergreens

Evergreens especially, not going dormant as deciduous plants do, continue to transpire throughout winter. Moisture may be sucked from the plant due to dry soils or by weather conditions, such as cold and drying winter winds.

Pay special attention to broad-leaved evergreens with lots of leaf surface, such as rhododendrons and hollies. (Even deciduous plants suffer from winterkill under certain circumstances.) Water deeply as long as weather permits. Apply anti-desiccants to newly planted evergreens, following temperature guidelines for application. Give areas of root balls a 2-3 inch mulch of organic matter. Take care that mulch is away from trunks; no “mulch volcanoes” that lead to girdling roots or rot entering trunks.

2022 Garden

Next year’s vegetable garden: the time to start is now. While tilling is usually thought of as integral to prepping an in-ground garden, most experts now advise foregoing that step, to create as little soil disturbance as possible. Part of success in gardens is having healthy populations of mini-micro soil life; they make everything happen.

Instead, when preparing ground for vegetable gardens use tarps, or sheet mulching in combination with cardboard, which promote soil life that softens and conditions soil for future planting. If using cardboard, opening and then covering with mulch, such as composted wood chips, is the system; but first broadcast low-number organic soil food (fertilizer) on the soil surface. (Also broadcast powdered gypsum — adds calcium without altering soil pH — if the soil seems hard and compacted.)

It is the action of the soil organisms that enables soil to breathe and plants to grow, and soil food encourages their proliferation. Chemical products tend to reduce these populations. (See:

In the garden

“Old wood” protects sub-shrubs such as caryopteris (resembling perennials but with woody stems) from winter temperature extremes; prune in spring. Others in this category include buddleia, potentilla, hydrangea macrophylla, vitex, rose-of-Sharon hibiscus, and more.

Deadhead the seed capsules of caryopteris hibiscus to limit prolific self-sowing.

Sow winter cover crops. In spring cut and broadfork in; rake surface to smooth. Plant spring bulbs. Consider wildlife value before continuing with cutting back flower beds.

Kent Healy, RIP

Kent Healy was a source of help and know-how all over the Island. That and his smiling face will be missed. “So long, it’s been good to know you.”