What type of prairie grass should I plant?

Asked April 13, 2017, 11:20 AM EDT

I have a large (25' wide X 225' long) section of yard under a power line that was formerly scrub grass, weeds, and unknown small trees that were cut every few years by the utility's tree company. This spring, it has been scraped clean to bare dirt and is ready to be transformed into whatever I desire. The section of land is heavy clay soil, on the south side of my property and receives heavy, direct sun all day. (See attached photo, which looks west.) I will be planting regular grass seed for the first approximately 75 feet, from the road to my home, but would like to plant a no maintenance, low cost prairie grass for the remainder of this section. Do you have any suggestions? A friend suggested "smooth brome grass" but I wanted to get a second opinion. Thanks for any suggestions you can provide.

Hennepin County Minnesota prairie restoration native grasses horticulture

1 Response

Thank you for the question. There are many benefits to using native grasses in your landscape. Once established, their water requirements are low, they need no fertilization or pesticides, and they provide habitat and food for birds, insects like native bees, and butterflies while in the caterpillar stage. These grasses also improve the soil by increasing organic matter and the long roots hold soil in place minimizing erosion.
While these grasses are a great option, no maintenance is a myth and there will be quite a bit of work in the first 2 years while the plants are establishing. Adult grasses need little input but seedlings and young grasses will need to be watered and weeded consistently or all your work will be for nothing.

Most prairie grasses prefer full sun like your site gets, but the heavy clay soil may hold water to a degree so you should probably pick grasses that can tolerate wet feet. If your soil is well drained, more grass options are open to you. According to our publication on Establishing and maintaining a prairie garden, here's how to determine if your area is classified as wet, or poorly drained http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/landscaping/establishing-and-maintaining-a-prairie-garden/:
"Standing water on a site or water that does not drain from a 1' deep hole within 24 hours are indicators of wet and poorly drained soils. Knowing the soil drainage of your site is really more critical than taking a soil test which is typically done in planting a garden. Although you may have a soil test done, (soil test information is available from your county extension agent or from the University of Minnesota soil testing labs*) it is not critical in establishing a successful prairie garden. Understanding the drainage and sun/shade exposure of your site is essential for selecting plants that thrive in your location".

The suggestion of using smooth bromegrass should NOT be considered due to its aggressive nature. Read what the Minnesota DNR has to say: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/terrestrialplants/grasses/smoothbromegrass.html

You will find substitutes for the smooth bromegrass at the bottom of the previous link and you can click on each one for more information. Here is the list of native prairie grasses that might work for you:
Big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, prairie cordgrass, and bluejoint grass. Note that they get quite tall.
Here are a few more links to learn more:
http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/landscaping/implement/developing_prairie.htm Developing residential prairie, a sort of "how to" for establishing small prairies.

http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/assistance/backyard/prairierestoration/goingnative.pdf DNR handbook on how to reestablish small areas of prairie for the homeowner. You can focus on the grasses instead of the native flowers.

You will have to do an internet search to find seed once you decide how to go forward.

Thank you for contacting Extension.