Wait a minute. Plant grasses? I thought there was a push among those gardening for pollinators and wildlife to reduce yards and grassy areas…. Well, yes, to all of that.
The key point here is to plant native grasses like big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, prairie dropseed, and many others. These plants play key roles in their natural ecosystems and can serve some of the same roles in the miniature prairie ecosystems we try to recreate in our pollinator gardens.
First, native grasses are the larval host plants (i.e. baby food) for several species of butterflies and moths, including at least 9 different species of skippers. Caterpillars also tend to leave their host plants and crawl to other vegetation or structures before forming their chrysalis or cocoon. (That’s why the big monarch caterpillars always suddenly disappear from your milkweeds.) Tall native grasses intermingled with your native wildflowers can provide natural structures upon which caterpillars can form their chrysalis or cocoons.
Second, native grasses are good food sources for many of our songbirds. Some of our songbirds, like indigo buntings, are seed eaters and will chow down on the grass seeds. Other songbirds, like common yellowthroats, are insect eaters and will happily eat any insects they find hanging out among the native grasses and wildflowers you plant. (Not just the pollinators you are trying to attract, but also all of the other insects that can be found in a healthy, functioning ecosystem.)
Third, native grasses tend to grow in clumps or bunches. This provides important habitat for bumblebees which will nest at the base of the clumps as well as ground nesting birds and small mammals. In fields and prairies, this bunching characteristic also creates runways for quail and small turkeys to easily travel through the grasses while being protected from overhead predators such as hawks.
Fourth, native grasses tend to have very deep root systems that can reach down 10 feet or more, depending on the species. These long root systems bring moisture and nutrients up from deeper underground than our typical yard grasses whose roots often only reach depths of a few inches to a foot.
Our typical yard grasses are collectively known as turf grasses. Common turf grasses include Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and Bermuda grass. Most turf grasses are native to other parts of the world, not the U.S. (Yes, despite its name, Kentucky bluegrass is native to Europe, not Kentucky.) Because these species aren’t native to here, they may not be as attractive to some of our native caterpillars and other insects as their native counterparts are.
Turf grasses also tend to spread out as mats across the surface of the ground instead of forming bunches like our native grasses. The growth style of the turf grasses is why they can form the carpets of green grass that are promoted as the perfect yard. However, this growth form doesn’t provide the habitat that bumble bees, ground nesting birds, small mammals, and many other wildlife species need. Also, because we mow them all the time, turf grasses typically don’t get tall enough to provide places for forming chrysalises / cocoons or to provide natural bird food in the form of seeds or insects that are attracted to the grasses.
So yes, reducing the size of your mowed yard by planting native wildflowers is an important step for attracting pollinators and backyard wildlife. However, don’t use that as an excuse to villainize all grasses. If you want to take your pollinator and wildlife gardens to the next level, then it’s important to recognize that it’s not all about the wildflowers. Native grasses can also play a valuable role in your pollinator and wildlife gardens.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.