The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 26: May 14, 2012

KYPP Nugget: There is more to grass than lawn...

Grass: Background Information

Cows of the dairy herd at Hawthorne Valley Farm graze all summer on the pastures surrounding the vegetable gardens. When they return to the barn twice a day for milking, they also deposit manure which then gets collected, composted, and used as fertilizer in the vegetable fields (here seen behind the cows).

(click image to enlarge)

Our pastures are composed of 30 to 50% grass, mixed with legumes and a variety of other plants, such as dandelions. Our Photographic Guide to Common Pasture Grasses and Legumes gives hints how to distinguish our common pasture and lawn grasses, even if they are not in flower or fruit (please allow the file some time to upload, it will get there, eventually...).

If you are interested in delving deeper into the world of grasses, we recommend two excellent little books for starters. The old and tried First Book of Grasses by Agnes Chase offers wonderful line drawings (see below), which really help one understand grass morphology and the often perplexing terms used in grass identification. The not quite as old but equally tried Grasses: An Identification Guide by Lauren Brown is a handy compilation of our most common grasses, sedges and other grass-like plants, with drawings and text that help sharpen one's eye to the diversity of grasses. However, if one wishes to delve deeper, there is no way to avoid the more technical botanical literature.

Do grasses have flowers?
Well, yes! Although you need to look close in order to find them. Grasses are wind pollinated, so they don't rely on animal pollinators. They produce no nectar, now large and colorful flowers, and no sophisticated parfumes associated with attracting insects or hummingbirds. Instead, they produce lots and lots of pollen to ride on the wind and hopefully find another grass flower of the same species to pollinate...

Grass flowers are typically arranged in inflorescences.
(click image to enlarge)

On the left of this image (this and the following two line drawings are from the First Book of Grasses), you see an idealized branch of a typical non-grass "flowering" plant. On the right, you see the corresponding parts of a typical grass inflorescence.

Each grass inflorescence is composed of florets.

and finally, whithin each floret one finds a grass flower:
(click image to enlarge)

It is worth taking a magnifying glass and looking closely at a flowering grass to see if you can distinguish the three yellow stamens and the two feathery stigmas!

And how exactly do grasses grow???

Grasses have growth tissue (so-called meristem, indicated with red circles in the picture above) at the very base of the plant, but also at each node (where leaves emerge along the stalk). They can grow simultaneously in all these meristematic areas.

When do grasses grow?
That depends: cold season grasses grow best in spring and fall, while warm season grasses grow best in the height of summer.

(click image to enlarge)

Consequently, in spring, you can find clumps of last year's stalks of native warm season grasses (such as Little Bluestem) surrounded by fresh growth of introduced cold season grasses (such as Kenntucky Bluegrass, Orchard Grass, etc.).

In the summer, a clump of Little Bluestem is much less conspicuous.

A number of uncommon native butterflies are closely associated with Little Bluestem.

Every spring, we look for meadows, such as the one pictured below, which have plenty of Little Bluestem and promise to be habitat for these rare skippers which only fly for a few weeks in spring.

If you are the steward of a Little Bluestem meadow or know of one in your neighborhood, we would love to hear about it and include it in our spring butterfly surveys.


Chase, Agnes. 1937. First Book of Grasses. The Structure of Grasses Explained for Beginners. Revised Edtition. Silveus, San Antonio, Texas.

Brown, Lauren. 1979. Grasses. An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
There is more to grass than lawn - and there could be more to lawn than grass...

by Claudia Knab-Vispo

Grass-fed beef and grass-based dairy are two terms that have recently gotten a lot of attention, often in the context of the health benefits for the consumer. However, in our climate and on our soils, grass-based agriculture also holds the potential to be ecologically sustainable and therefore healthy for the land. Why is that? Because when cows eat grass, directly from pasture in the summer and hay in the winter, the land that feeds them does not need to be tilled. This minimizes soil erosion because the soil particles are kept in place by a permanent cover of grass and a deep, dense system of roots. Furthermore, by not physically disturbing the soil with the plow every so often, a stable community of soil organisms can develop, which might help make the grass more nutritious, resilient, and less dependent on outside inputs.
Of course, most people appreciate a diet more varied than milk and meat. The nice thing about cows is that they also produce manure, which can serve as a local source of fertility for vegetable and grain fields. We have several diversified farms in the county which attempt to balance their acreage in grasslands (and the numbers of animals) with the acreage of plowed fields that grow vegetables and small grains for human consumption. The goal of these farms is to become largely independent from bought-in fertility and feed, to let the grass feed the animals and their manure feed the vegetables/small grains. Care must be taken however to ensure that the grasslands aren’t depleted of their soil nutrients.
Let’s go back to the grass. What is so special about it? First of all, of course, there is not just one grass. Although many grass species look superficially very much alike, we actually know of more than a hundred different kinds of grasses in the County. A third of them are introduced from Europe and make up the bulk of our pastures and hay (as well as lawns). Timothy, orchard grass, meadow fescue, and even Kentucky bluegrass were all not components of the native flora, but were brought here to make the upland meadows of colonial farmers more productive. These introduced grasses have the ability to form a dense sod, and they do well and easily out-compete the native grasses in fertile soils. Their secret to success is their ability to grow and photosynthesize in cold weather, starting to grow early in the spring and staying green late into fall. The trade-off for these “cool-season grasses” is their mid-summer slump when high temperatures and dry weather slow down their growth.
In contrast, most native grasses are “warm-season grasses”, which start growing only in late spring and withdraw their juices back into the roots at the onset of cold weather, leaving no trace of green above ground. They accomplish most of their growth during the hot and dry summer months. Some native grasses, such as little bluestem, do well on dry, thin, sterile soils. The tan to copper-colored dried stalks of little bluestem can be observed right now on many banks along the Taconic Parkway. Little bluestem is also a host plant for the caterpillars of several inconspicuous and rare native butterflies. Other native grasses, such as Canada bluejoint, rice cut-grass or rattlesnake grass are wetland specialists.
All grasses, whether native or not, whether growing on a fertile pasture, on a sterile roadside, or in a wetland, have an exciting trick up their sleeves that make them more resilient to grazing and mowing than many other plants. They grow from the bottom! Unlike trees, which add a year’s worth of growth at the very tip of their branches, grasses lengthen their leaves and stalks by dividing cells and adding new growth at their base and at each node, thereby pushing the older parts higher and higher. That is how a well-managed pasture can support several visits of a rotating herd of cows, every time offering them a lush growth of new grass. And that is how many people find themselves on a lawn-mowing treadmill when trying to “keep up with the grass”.
The biological desert represented by the uniform green carpet of a close-cut, chemically-treated lawn can be turned into a colorful tapestry alive with flowers, butterflies and birds just by a little benevolent neglect. Why not limit the frequent mowing to those areas of the yard that see heavy foot traffic? Beyond that, it might be worth experimenting with ways of inviting a little more nature into the garden. This might take the form of delaying mowing until vegetation reaches the maximum height one’s mower can deal with. Over time, this simple measure can increase the diversity of plants and animals that find the meadow a suitable place to live. The most ambitious goal would be the outright conversion of a piece of lawn into a native wildflower meadow, although this requires more know-how, as well as investment in seeds or plants and, potentially, new mowing equipment. An intermediate strategy might be the establishment of “islands” and borders of native meadow plants within/around the current lawn area; once these sites are established, one could encourage their expansion every year.
Any effort towards reducing the lawn area will be rewarded with a seasonally changing display of colors, textures, and wildlife activity and an increase in aliveness of the yard.

The native grass little bluestem forms some prominent patches on the banks of the Taconic Parkway (here near the Route 23 Exit). Because of the lack of snow this winter, its orange-hued stalks are still upright a