I Love the Family Poaceae - The Grass Family
Yes, you read that correctly, Brie the Plant Lady loves grass.
All grasses—from the velvety green turf we take for granted in our yards to the ornamental clumps that shine in the autumn sun. I even love edible grasses, aka grains.
In my twenty-year career as a horticulturist one thing remains steady: my adoration and appreciation for the workhorse we all grow . . . GRASS!
Grass gets a bad rap and I think it is high time we have a heart-to-heart about the important functions that grass offers the world. From slowing water flow and reducing soil erosion, to providing the oxygen that we breathe, grass is important for human life.
Grow Food Not Lawns?
You have probably seen this referenced a time or two on social media. And, in theory, it is a good idea. After all, we have hungry people in every community across the US.
The reality is lawn plays an important function as a plant. Sure, it is different than feeding people, but what would you walk on, play on, and picnic on if grass weren’t out there under your feet?
Over the years I have found myself defending lawns to audiences across the US. It is easy to dismiss the value of turf because we see it EVERYWHERE. And in this era of judgement before knowledge, many people assume that because grass is covering the ground it must be bad. But is it REALLY?
You'll see on my Instagram that I have a lot of open space dedicated to my lawn. This is partly so I have a space to throw parties and partly so I can stand back and enjoy seeing my plantings.
The Many Attributes of Turfgrass
The reality is lawns are critical components of sustainable living, particularly in developed landscapes where people and pets interact daily. You may not realize it, but while you are taking that green grass for granted, it is busy providing environmental services year-round!
1) Oxygen Production & Carbon Dioxide Reduction
Like all plants, grass absorbs carbon dioxide from the air; then, as part of the process of photosynthesis, produces the oxygen you breathe. In fact, it is noted that lawns are remarkably efficient at oxygen production. A 25-square-foot area of healthy turf produces enough oxygen each day to meet all the oxygen needs of one adult. Lawns also annually take in about 5% of the carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere, which helps reduce the potential for global warming.
2) Erosion Control & Water Quality
A healthy lawn is one of the most effective controls against soil erosion from excessive water and wind, an issue that is of particular importance for gardeners in the south, where we get massive amounts of rainfall.
Lawn grasses offer extensive root systems which hold soil in place, while grass blades protect topsoil from eroding. Turf also reduces runoff from neighboring roadways that can dump pollutants into streams and storm sewers that ultimately lead to the ocean.
3) Temperature Modification
Like all plants, grasses cool themselves through a process called transpiration, which leads to a lower air temperature because of evaporation. Air temperatures over concrete or similar surfaces on sunny days can be more than 14 degrees hotter than the temperature above your lawn!
4) Improved Air Quality & Soil Structure
Did you know that lawns capture air pollutants such as dirt, dust, allergens, and more serious pollutants? In the United States alone, turf grasses rid the air of an estimated 12 million tons of impurities annually, breaking down pollutants and restoring dirt and dust to the soil.
When organically nourished and maintained, lawns encourage beneficial microorganisms in soil, like the ones that Soil³ compost has in it! They also produce organic matter that improves the soil's health and structure. Healthy soil leads to healthy grass, which enhances all the environmental benefits that lawns offer.
Sustainable Lawn Management Practices
Most criticisms of lawns comes from the aftercare approach. So, how can you avoid over-caring for you lawn with too many inputs? You can build on the environmental benefits of grass by maintaining your lawn differently in several simple ways.
1) Right Plant, Right Place
Plant grasses that are appropriate for where you live! Select a warm season turf, like Bermudagrass, Zoysiagrass, or Centipedegrass for your full sun areas instead of fighting nature by trying to grow a cool season variety. Remember, here in the Southeast we qualify as a warm season turf zone, so unless you are growing in shade, heat tolerant turf is going to be your best choice. Find the best option for you by using Super-Sod's turfgrass selection filter.
2) Proper Irrigation
Irrigate thoroughly and deeply when you water. Shallow, frequent watering encourages shallow roots, therefore increasing your need to water constantly. In contrast, we known know that deep, infrequent watering supports a healthy, long lasting root system. So, reset your irrigation timers STAT!
3) Let Your Mower Mulch
Leave grass clippings on your lawn to decompose. Clippings work like a natural fertilizer to provide nitrogen that lawns need for healthy green growth. I know, this is a bit controversial, even in my house! My husband likes to bag the grass clippings and I use them in my garden beds and compost piles. But every now and again I talk him into removing the bagger and letting the clippings fall in place.
Our neighbor Abby feels empowered by mowing, so I let her!
4) Follow Good Mowing Practices for Grass Health
This just means learn how to mow your lawn! If needed, adjust your blades higher so you don't scalp it. Mow it frequently during the growing season, also so you don't scalp it, and so you don't shock it by mowing off too much and cause too much water loss. Remember all plants, and your lawn is a plant, don't like for more than 1/3" of their foliage to be pruned, in this case mowed, at a time.
If you really want to be "green" about it, look into robotic lawn mowers. They are electric, thus there are no emissions. They don't scalp and shock out your lawn, so there will be less water loss. There are no baggers on them, so they are always mulching and returning the nitrogen-rich clipping right back into your lawn.
5) Topdress with Compost for Nutrition
Spread compost such as Soil³ over your lawn to provide a slow release of nutrients while feeding the soil. Most importantly, compost nourishes both the plants and the microbes in the soil which are your best defense against potential disease. Healthy, organically supported turf equals less overall maintenance!
Grasses offer more than just lawn, though! Low maintenance, drought tolerant, high impact ornamental grasses have become the stars of many sunny landscapes in recent years. These plants seem to thrive on neglect while providing important ecosystem services, such as a home for native bees through the winter.
The cool thing about ornamental grasses is the diversity that is available. From full sun, native varieties to shade loving groundcovers, there is an ornamental grass for you. I recently recorded a podcast episode with Joe Lamp'l about ornamental grasses and he wrote a blog post about it on his website. It covers so much more than I have room for here:
Purple muhly grass is one of my favorite ornamental grasses. Just look at these waves of color. This photo was taken in October - another thing to like about this native grass is that it flowers in the autumn.
Edible Grasses = Grains!
Being the #CrazyGrainLady I have to discuss the “other” grasses that we all consume, one way or another. Just like ornamental grasses, grains can be used in the landscape to create seasonal color, texture, and serve as an important resource for local wildlife while naturally improving your soil.
Did you know that all true grasses are included in the Poaceae family, grains included? That is what distinguishes a cereal crop from a legume, like soybeans or peas. They are also wind pollinated and self-fertile, ensuring high yields and showy seed heads.
Yes, plants in the grass family are low maintenance and high impact and grains are no exception.
I divide grains for the landscape into two categories, just like lawn grasses:
- Warm season: meaning plants that grow in the warm, frost-free months
- Cool season: referring to varieties that appreciate colder air and soil temperatures
Depending on where you garden you will plant these grains at different times of year. Since it's winter when I'm writing this, and the time when cool season grains take center stage, that is what I am focusing on here.
[Editor's Note: This is a teaser for Brie's book, Gardening With Grains. If you'd like to know more about the many warm season grains, please order directly from Brie via that link.]
What Are Cool Season Grains?
Cool season grains include agricultural staples like barley, wheat, oats, and rye.
All of these do very well in ordinary garden conditions and thrive in cooler temperatures. Think of them as ornamental grasses that grow all winter! Beyond their ornamental appeal, winter active grains have deep roots that act as natural tillers, breaking up compacted soil while scavenging nutrients from deep within. Yes, grains should be your best friends in the garden, as they perform essential services that make your job easier.
In my book Gardening with Grains, three plants are featured for winter performance in USDA zones 6-9. In cooler climates they can be planted in late winter or early spring. From my experience, all these recommendations are reliable when direct seeded anytime between October-December and will grow through the winter months, looking like fresh green grass. As the days get warm and long, the plants grow rapidly and begin to bloom through April and May. To harvest, wait until the plants turn amber and are completely dried out in June.
Barley—The Beauty Queen Horedeum vulgare
Without hesitation, barley is the most beautiful plant.
The large barley blooms are adorned with long awns (the cat whisker-like structures) that glow in the sunshine.
Honestly, barley is a worthy garden specimen just because of its ornamental appeal. But it is also an extremely USEFUL plant - after all barley is a critical ingredient in beer. No, I don’t grow enough barley to supply myself with all the beer I drink, however my appreciation for this beverage has increased significantly as a result of cultivating this grain.
Oats—The Dancer Avena sativa
The largest of the cool season grains, oats are elegant and the seed heads dance in the spring breeze. The foliage is wide and has a blue-grey coloration.
Oats pair well with other spring flowers, such as these pink and blue larkspurs and the poppies you see in the background.
The mature plants can reach 4’ tall or more, making them an ideal addition to the back or middle of a garden border. Oats also have the most robust root system, stretching 48” deep drawing essential nutrients back to the soil surface.
Wheat—The Workhorse Triticum aestivum
The first grain I ever grew was wheat and it remains the most practical of the cereals cultivated annually in the foodscape.
Wheat also pairs well with other spring flowers, such as larkspurs and poppies.
Unlike the other varieties that I grow primarily for ornamentation, the wheat does get harvested, threshed, winnowed, and ground into flour to use in the kitchen. Yes, we do this by hand, with the help of my favorite neighborhood garden helper, Abby. We show you the steps in our video:
How to Garden With Grains
Remember, that just like many ornamental grasses, grains prefer to be grown in full sun, with moist, well-drained soil that has a neutral pH. Though they are adapted to adverse environments, the advantage of growing grains in your home landscape is that you can provide the ideal conditions to maximize their growth. Compared to a petunia or tomato, grains are the easiest plant in the world to cultivate, and they thrive in Soil³!
Planting Beds with Grains
Incorporating grains in your landscape is easy. You can grow them in clumps, just like an ornamental grass, by seeding them in Soil³ organic compost. I recommend clumps that are 2-3’ wide so they make a big impact.
You can also create an “edible meadow” by mixing the grains with flowers, such as larkspur and poppies. This creates a dramatic effect, especially when surrounded by another favorite grass . . . LAWN!
Filling Containers With Grains
Grains are also great candidates to be grown in containers as the “thriller” element, similar to how purple fountain grass is used. This is by the far the easiest way and what I always recommend for beginning grain growers, for both cool season and warm season grains. Here are my steps to growing grains in containers:
- Find a pot that has drainage holes (or no holes for rice) - I like using 5-7-gallon pots
- Fill it with Soil³ organic compost
- Scatter grains seed on top of the soil
- Lightly cover seed with more Soil³
- Topdress with mulch of your choice to reduce soil splatter and make it look professional
- Grains will germinate in roughly 2 weeks (or sooner)
- Water as needed - stick your finger in the top 3” of soil to check if the soil is dry
What to do With These Grains?
The point of Gardening with Grains is to think creatively about what we grow and look to plants that offer practical solutions while creating a dynamic display. Sometimes we eat the harvest, other times we make flower arrangements to share, and most of the time birds and other wildlife reap the benefits. It does not really matter what you DO with the grains. It is the journey not the destination!
Where to Buy Grain Seeds
My first recommendation is to search Google for local sources in your area. But here are some of my favorite grain seed suppliers that sell online.
Want to Learn More?
Now that I have gotten you interested, perhaps you want to learn more about growing a grass you have little experience cultivating. If so, you can purchase a signed and personalized copy of Gardening With Grains at BrieGrows.com.
As always, I hope my “out of the box” approach to gardening will serve as inspiration for you. Remember that within the Pocaeae plant family, important solutions for everyday living exist!
So, give grass a chance - I promise you will not be disappointed by the ease of growing, cold hardiness, and overall beauty that grass plants offer. And if you are ambitious, maybe you will make a loaf of bread from your homegrown harvest!
Stay warm gardening,
All photos by Brie Arthur.
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Did this help you out? Have any questions for clarity? Leave a comment below!