Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: A Cool, Cool Season Native Grass Lesson

Poverty Oat Grass early summer 2013
 I love my cool season grasses. They're the first grasses to green up and by the time the warm season grasses are knee high they've begun to set seed! It's a puzzle to me why they're still overlooked, underestimated, unappreciated and in some cases still unknown. On the whole they're easy peasy plants that would grow well in many of our garden settings.
Poverty Oat Grass behind the chair frames late spring 2015
Most cool season grasses don't make as big a show as our handsome warm season native grasses, but, they play an important ecological role in plant communities by providing food (forage and seed) and cover early in the growing season when most other plants are just waking up! That's a lot of coolness!
It was easy for me to be open to its charms,  I never wanted to mow grass when I could have wildflowers
Poverty Oat Grass/Danthonia spicata is a particular favorite of mine. It's a wispy, slender bladed bunch grass that starts growing in the cooler weather of Spring, then flowers and sets seed in the early summer. I find the name is perfect for a grass that grows in the most inhospitable of spaces: dry upland woods and forests, upland prairies, glades, tops of bluffs, old fields, eroded pastures, roadsides and dry disturbed areas. Anywhere the soil is dry and sterile.

Of course, you won't be surprised if I tell you it's naturally occurring in my garden! Parts of this garden are indeed dry and inhospitable, with shallow soil that sits on top of limestone boulders and bedrock. An especially inhospitable spot is sited right next to the Blue Bottle Tree! I can't recall exactly what had been there before, possibly remnants of the previous owner's lawn, some very lovely Lyre Leaf sages and in the shade, beneath the Burr Oak were patches of Danthonia spicata. Traditionally, it was mowed to create a negative space to help balance the exuberance of my wildflowers. I knew that something more could be done with such a charming little grass so I transplanted a dozen small clumps late one fall to that inhospitable, shallow soil! The fall rains arrived and they settled in nicely.
The following spring the grass began to grow. It was wispy and delicate, really quite lovely. In June it began setting seed and the following month there was a sea of silvered foliage as the plant went dormant.

 It was stunning and a success.

Fast forward to summer 2015! Not so good. After a year of neglect (I was out for surgeries) the lawnette was crowded with Susans, Fleabane, Vernonia seedlings, non-native clover and real weeds! It was lovely where the wildflowers hadn't encroached on the Danthonia spicata, but, the large expanse of silvery lawn was absent.

I wondered if the Danthonia experiment was a failure and if not what could be done? After a lot of thought and studying the lawnette, here's what I concluded.

When wildflower experts say "This grass does not tolerate competition from taller growing vegetation." they mean it! Keep out trespassing wildflowers!

When experts say this "grass prefers  dry-mesic to dry conditions" they mean it!  We can't control the weather, but, we can control watering.

There's no such thing as a maintenance free lawnette! Weeding is necessary, since there can be too many Susans; Vernonia and other colonizers will seed every where (seedlings can be transplanted); and clover is too aggressive and just needs to go!

There are plenty of lessons and do overs in a garden!

It's all so much fun!

What makes this experiment a success for me?

It's relatively low maintenance: (no watering, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no mowing, just occasional weeding.

It's sustainable.

Increased biodiversity~natives grasses in general are host plants for many butterflies and skippers.

It's charming.

It's lovely.

The seed is viable in the soil for decades~it will replenish itself.

It was fun.

Isn't learning new information, having fun and creating a garden that feeds one's soul while taking care of wildlife what wildflower gardening is all about?

Happy wildflower gardening my friends.

The Particulars:

Poverty oat grass is a cool season, bunch grass (no stolens or rhizomes) that is best suited for poor, dry, rocky soils where it forms dense clumps of curly basal growth. It does not tolerate competition from taller  plants. Remove fallen leaves in a woodland setting. Easily grown from seed, germinates quickly.

Range:  Native to Middle Tennessee, it can be found almost everywhere in the US and Canada. (Zone 3 to 8)

Exposure: Full Sun/Shade/Partial Shade

Soil: Dry and poor

Flowering: June, sets seed and then goes dormant. The inflorescence is small and delicate

Wildlife value: Food, shelter, host plant for several skippers, moths and some grasshoppers

Plants are available locally from GroWild Nursery and you can order seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery.

Thank you for stopping by and welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. WW is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not; and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants. It's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave a comment when you add your url to Mr Linky.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Colour me, my bugs and birds, happy. Almost ALL the flowers I bring to WfW this month are Proudly South African.

  2. tell this foreigner, does the name 'poverty oat' grass have a sad history of being famine and survival food for early settlers?
    In your garden it is a delight - especially the billowing silver waves season!

  3. I do love the idea of this grass and the look when it is dormant, but alas we are deep dense clay here but I am adding more grasses and removing some to the meadow where it will be happier. The voles destroyed a favorite native grass of mine but it is back in another spot so I am happy. Native grasses are such wonderful plants for our gardens and our wildlife.

  4. I love that path of silver foliage. I have not heard of Danthonia before reading this and yes, information is fun! Great job spreading the word.

  5. It is lovely and perfect in your garden. You inspire me.~~Dee

  6. Some of these grasses have the best names! Your photos of Poverty Oat Grass in spring, autumn, and especially summer--with that great silivery foliage--show how beautiful it can be in the right setting. This would be a great post to share in the "Garden Lessons Learned" meme coming up in a few days. Happy Wildflower Wednesday, Gail.

  7. Apologies for my double posting - the first one links to a post from November 2014 for some bizarre reason!
    Your grasses all look splendid Gail, and I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about trial and error being an intrinsic part of the joy of gardening. I love a good project to lose myself in - even if it all goes wonky eventually!

  8. It looked pretty in your photos. My mower man would faint if I did that. tee hee.... we all have our crosses to bear.

  9. That is an excellent grass - great experiment - and good learning experience for us all. The dormant silver grass is a gorgeous photo. The fun and beauty of wildflowers is that they are completely different from year to year. The moment we want to tame them, they show us time and again what wild means.

  10. I learned something new, since I am pretty sure I have not heard of that grass. You have lots of space for something like that to be able to do its thing, and then go dormant. I'm not sure if I could handle that in our small yard. I love what Barbarapc said. The wildflowers here are never the same size each year. With all the rain we had this spring, most plants are taller than usual, yet some, like rattlesnake master are shorter this year.

  11. Have really enjoyed your blog for a while now and happy to participate for the first time, thanks for the inspiration to grow more natives.

  12. There are always tons of things to learn in this garden adventure, that's for sure. Love your beautiful photos and thanks for the lesson(s). Haven't participated in a while and am glad to join in with the wonderful world of native plants. Thanks for hosting!!

  13. Gail, you really should write a book--I learn something new every time I come here! I have to contend with so many weedy grasses here that I'm very careful about the grasses I do include in my garden. This looks like a pretty, delicate beauty that wouldn't take over. I finally found the time to join in again this month--I always enjoy Wildflower Wednesday!

  14. Inspiring and educational, as always, with your successes and lessons learned. I am looking for something for a mountainside around a farmhouse that can take some neglect because this is a getaway place. Right now the area is grass that has to be mowed and is on quite the slope. I'll keep this plant in mind. Thanks!

  15. That's interesting that it is a host plant for skippers, they are some of my favorite butterflies for being friendly to photograph. It seems gardens are always a fight with invasive weeds, Susans sound more lovely than the ones I fight, like thistles and prickly dandelions.

  16. When does aggressive become invasive? Should we ever put the brakes on the growth and spread of a native plant? These are some of the questions I'm wrestling with as I've recently discovered hemp dogbane on my property.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson