What’s the difference between native grass and lawn grass - aren't they both grass?

The green lawns you see around homes and buildings are made up of one or more species of a matted, dense plant called turf grass. In contrast, native grasses are conventionally grown taller or have a mounded structure in the landscape, and may be found growing among wildflowers in a meadow or natural area.

Here’s what turf grass typically looks like:

Turf grass.  Image Source: ©  William Warby  /  Grass Texture  /  CC BY 2.0

Turf grass.

Image Source: © William Warby / Grass Texture / CC BY 2.0

Here’s what little bluestem, a common native grass looks like:

Little Bluestem grass,  Schizachyrium scoparium   Image Source: ©  Chhe  / Wikimedia Commons /  Public Domain, CC0

Little Bluestem grass, Schizachyrium scoparium

Image Source: © Chhe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain, CC0

Another difference between the two types of grasses is how they are grown. Lawns are made of turf grass. Since the lawn is mowed regularly, the turf grass is never able to flower. Instead, the grass spreads by rhizomes or stolons to form a mat of plants spaced very close together. Alternatively, native grasses are allowed to grow free and usually turn brown and go dormant in the winter.

Some common species of native grass growing in the U.S. include little bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, prairie dropseed, and purple lovegrass. Many native grasses reproduce by seed, dispersed by the wind or carried by birds and small mammals.

Little Bluestem,  Schizachyrium scoparium   Image Source: ©  Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz  / Schizachyrium scoparium in New York Botanical Garden / Wikimedia Commons /  CC-BY-SA-4.0

Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium

Image Source: © Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz / Schizachyrium scoparium in New York Botanical Garden / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Switchgrass,  Panicum virgatum   Image Source: ©  Dinkum  / Wikimedia Commons /  CCO 1.0

Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum

Image Source: © Dinkum / Wikimedia Commons / CCO 1.0

Indian Grass,  Sorghastrum nutans   Image Source: ©  Matt Lavin  / Sorghastrum nutans /  CC BY-SA 2.0

Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans

Image Source: © Matt Lavin / Sorghastrum nutans / CC BY-SA 2.0

Prairie Dropseed,  Sporobolus heterolepis   Image Source: © David J. Stang / Wikimedia Commons /  CC BY-SA 4.0

Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis

Image Source: © David J. Stang / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Purple Lovegrass,  Eragrostis spectabilis   Image Source: © David J. Stang / Wikimedia Commons /  CC BY-SA 4.0

Purple Lovegrass, Eragrostis spectabilis

Image Source: © David J. Stang / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

While turf grass was primarily an import from Europe and recently introduced to the American landscape, native grasses have been in the U.S. for millions of years. In fact, a diversity of native grass species once formed the prairie landscape of the American Midwest. The American prairie used to cover millions of acres, made up of grasses adapted to the dry, hot windy climate of the Midwest.

Map of the American prairie and plains prior to European settlement.  Image Source: ©  Fährtenleser  / Wikimedia Commons /  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Map of the American prairie and plains prior to European settlement.

Image Source: © Fährtenleser / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Some of the ecosystem services native grasses provide include erosion control, their ability to restore soil health, serve as a windbreak, shelter small mammals and birds in the winter, and to feed a large diversity of wildlife species. The stems, leaves, and seeds of native grasses can serve as food and help support insect populations, such as some native bees that build nests in the hollow stems of some grasses.

Switchgrass provides habitat for many species and can be planted as a nice focal point in the garden.  Image Source: ©  Matt Lavin  / Panicum virgatum /  CC BY-SA 2.0

Switchgrass provides habitat for many species and can be planted as a nice focal point in the garden.

Image Source: © Matt Lavin / Panicum virgatum / CC BY-SA 2.0

Turf grass requires a lot of maintenance to keep the lawn looking green and uniform. This includes mowing, fertilizing, watering, and applying herbicides and pesticides to prevent disease or infestation.

Native grasses require almost no maintenance. They need to be watered when they are first planted. Some gardeners may prefer to cut back the grasses in the early spring so they do not appear too overgrown. Otherwise, the grasses will grow-in on their own and be self-sustaining over time.

Native grasses and sedges planted along the High Line in NYC.  Image Source: ©  Paul Simpson  / The High Line 9 /  CC BY 2.0

Native grasses and sedges planted along the High Line in NYC.

Image Source: © Paul Simpson / The High Line 9 / CC BY 2.0

Now that you understand the difference between the two types of grasses, you may consider replacing a patch of turf grass with a few native grasses and creating a micro-prairie in your yard! Why not start with a few small plug plants of little bluestem, a native grass available for sale this spring at PLANitWILD.com.

Amanda Bayley