Ornamental grasses have gone from making me roll my eyes during a dinner conversation (see my About page) to a perennial I am looking for a spot in my yard to plant more. The particular grass, I am writing about is commonly called Switch grass (Panicum virgatum).
Switch grass: Panicum virgatum
Pronunciation: PAN-ih-kum veer-GAH-tum
Panicum virgatum is a native to the North American tall grass prairies. It was an important part of the tall grass prairie that once covered the interior of the United States. It’s a versatile grass that grows in a wide range of soils and climates.
- Best growing conditions: full sun; adapts to a wide range of soil conditions
- Size: 4-6′ tall, 2-4′ wide
- Coldest zone: 4
- Seasonal interest: August to winter
- Recommended spacing between plants: 24-36″
Selections of Panicum virgatum
While Panicum virgatum is used in prairie style plantings and also in actual restorations, it does not seem to me to be used as much as Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) in those settings. It is used by landscapers as much as these great garden plants, and should not be forgotten about by the home gardener.
Instead of using the species, which can be caused to flop over by heavy rain. I strongly recommend using one or more of the many nice selections of Switch grass. They include:
- Blue switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’)
- Hans Herms switch grass(Panicum virgatum ‘Hanse Herms’)
- Cloud Nine switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’)
- Shenandoah red switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’)
- Heavy Metal Blue switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’)
- Prairie Winds™ red switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’)
- Northwind switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’)
Note if your soil is very rich or wet even these cultivars can tend to flop (Northwind is probably the least likely to do this).
The only switch grass I have in my yard is Cloud Nine. I have had it a while, but I have found that it does need full sun, at least in my yard. It floundered in a shady spot under my neighbor’s ever expanding river birches and kind of just sat there year after year, holding on but never reaching it’s potential.
Last summer I moved it to a sunnier spot on the other side of my yard. I am hoping it takes off and becomes something like the photo my wife originally saw.
Switch grass won’t need regular fertilizer and after it is well established won’t need much supplemental water. During droughts you should probably water it ever couple of weeks.
It should be divided when it shows signs of life in the spring, up until it’s new growth is about 1′ tall. Only do this in the spring.
When to plant or move: Plant bare root and container plants in late spring to early summer. The roots will only grow in warm soil. Planting too early in the Spring could cause the roots to rot. When it is planted in the Fall the roots may not be able to grow enough to establish before winter, resulting in a dead plant.
Switch grass won’t need much care, but you will want to remove the old foliage in later Winter / early Spring. I have found hedge shears work well at cutting down most ornamental grass. Switch grass should be cut down before the new growth starts to appear, but after the cold weather is over. Cut back to about 3-4″ from the crown of the plant.
And the winner is…
A great cultivar of Switch grass that I really should replace some Miscanthus with is the Perennial Plant of the Year™ for 2014, the Northwind Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’).
Since Northwind Switch Grass has been introduced by nurseryman, Roy Diblik in 1992, it’s use has steadily grown. Roy first collected it’s seed from wild switch grass growing along railroad tracks in South Elgin, Illinois in 1983.
What first caught his eye was it’s wider leaves and upright growth habit, instead of the typical arching form of switch grass. When he opened his Northwind Perennial Farm in 1992, he introduced this plant and named it ‘Northwind’ after his nursery.
While Northwind may be the best selection, all of these Switch grass selections are worth a look if you are considering adding some large ornamental grass to your yard.