The Way the Day Unfolds, part 1 of 4: Getting to Know Grass

by Amy Martin (c)

When there are ten-thousand things that need to be done, it’s hard to know where to start. The weather, the wind, how wet the soil is, these ferret out a few tasks. Sometimes the disaster du jour sets the day. Or you see where your feet lead you.

Getting to Know Grass – Part 1 of 4

We stride out into the north meadow, determined once again to identify the new native grasses. For years we pummeled the 5 acres, yanking out the old Bermuda that didn’t do diddly for wildlife, disking and plowing and disking some more, then rolling in hundreds of dollars of native grass seeds, hoping to bring back the prairie that grew here a hundred years ago.

What came up we haven’t a clue. It all looks like the same grass – until the seed heads emerge in fall. Until we get a name we call them by their look: puffy top (looks like a frightened cat’s tail), red windmill (rusty tops with two to three strands that flop in the breeze), golden windmill (the same in gold), short spangle grass (conical seed head looks like a anorexic Christmas tree after all the needles fall off).

None of these are what we planted. Natives, yes, but all volunteers. They look great for sure, the puffy tops that gleam in the sunlight and sparkle with dew in the morning, the undulating windmills in the breeze, setting up waves of maroon and gold. Lovely, but with little seed value for wildlife.

Bluestems, that’s what we want, big-boned native grasses boasting tall vertical heads of ample seeds, plants that grow into large clumps that birds can nest inside. Here and there, little and big bluestem are giving it a go, spikey tops standing out among the puffies and windmills. Plus our old pal brushy bluestem, whose rust-colored fluffy seed heads poking out of the Bermuda several years ago convinced us the prairie yearned for return.

But where is the side-oats grama? After much digging, we find a solo distinctive spike, the seeds dangling off to one side. But the Indian grass? The Alamo switchgrass? We stand in the 30 mph wind screaming out of Oklahoma, flipping through books with pages flying, trying to match one of hundreds of pictures to the plant. Answers are just not going to happen today.

It may be a lost cause anyway. New native grasses tend to stay small the first year, investing their energy into putting down roots. We just won’t know until next summer. We simply have to have faith, much like the faith of the brushy bluestem, waiting for the right year, right weather, right landowner, to push out of the darkness and into the light.

October 25, 2007