The airy seedheads and tan leaves of switchgrass — Panicum virgatum — really glow in fall. Backlit by the rising or setting sun, or rustling in a breeze, its beauty and usefulness make it a valuable landscape plant.
There are a number of different cultivated switchgrass varieties (cultivars) available for you to choose from. They reach from 3 to 6 feet in height and about 2/3 that in width; part of that height is the seed heads, which are see-through and very light in texture.
The plant itself is not see-through at all; it is thick, and standing upright — a great vertical accent. The leaves are generally a light bluish-green in color, although some varieties are greener or bluer, and some have partly red leaves. They all need full sun but can tolerate a little shade. They are not fussy about soil type or moisture; they can grow near wetlands or out in a dry field.
They were one of the original and most numerous components of the tall-grass prairie; their roots can go down 10 feet and held the topsoil in place. They were valuable forage for bison. Now, they are valuable in restoring degraded areas, and holding steep banks together.
Their growth pattern is very upright — they make great screens, or dramatic elements in a landscape design. In mid-summer, the plant has an airy cloud of tiny pink flowers above the foliage, which develop into small beige seeds in fall, much loved by birds.
Switchgrass is a warm-season grass, meaning that it grows best when the weather is warm — so it starts out slowly in the spring. But don’t give up — as the season progresses, so does the grass. It is a clump-forming grass, meaning that it won’t spread like some lawn grasses can.
Some excellent varieties are: Northwind, which grows to 6 feet, the 2014 Plant of the Year, blueish green and very strong; Shenandoah, to 4 feet, beautiful red tips on the leaves; Cape Breeze, to 3 feet, salt-tolerant with large graceful seedheads; Heavy Metal Blue, to 5 feet, one of the bluest; and many others.
They are all beautiful massed, as an accent, or as a screen. They require minimal maintenance — cutting them back to about 6 inches in early spring is about it. They don’t need fertilizer, and they need little watering once they’re established. They look great in a formal garden, a wildlife planting (where they are essential) or any garden type. Try a variety today. There’s a place for a switchgrass in your yard.