Switch grass

Switch grass – Nothing to panic about, a wonderful plant

Switch grass, also known as Panic grass, or Panicum virgatum, is one of the most common grasses found here on the Delmarva coast.

It is easily grown in average, medium to wet soils in full sun to part shade, and it tolerates a wide range of soils, including dry ones, but prefers moist, sandy or clay soils. Switchgrass also tolerates occasional flooding and salt spray. It may flop in overly rich soils, so this is great for us near here as it doesn’t need fertilizing, so won’t contribute to water quality issues in the bays. It generally performs best in full sun; it will grow in part shade, but begins to lose its form in too much shade, growing more openly and possibly falling over. It grows primarily in clumps, but will slowly spread by slightly creeping rhizomes (a horizontal underground stem). Very low maintenance – cut back clumps to the ground in late winter to early spring. Plants may self-seed in optimum growing conditions but cultivars may not come true from seed. Growth often starts slowly at the beginning of the season – you could be wondering if your plant is dead? It isn’t, it’s just waiting for it to get warm. Once soil and air temperatures climb, they grow well through the remainder of the season. The seedbeds are beautiful, pinkish purple, in open, lacy sprays with small seeds, in Aug-Oct. Little birds love the seeds.

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ was the 2014 Plant of the Year® awarded by the Perennial Plant Association. Many cultivated varieties (cultivars) are naturally occurring varieties that someone noticed. They are not artificially produced, and can be perfect in wildlife gardens.

picture of cape breeze
Panicum v. ‘Cape Breeze’

Switchgrass has many fascinating uses, besides being a great ornamental. It can be used as a feedstock, as ground cover for soil conservation, to control erosion, for forages and grazing, and as game cover. It can be used by cattle farmers for hay and pasture and as a substitute for wheat straw in many applications, including livestock bedding, straw bale housing, and as a substrate for growing mushrooms. Switchgrass has been researched as a renewable bioenergy crop since the mid-1980s, because it is a native perennial warm season grass (meaning it grows best when it’s warm out, as opposed to many turf grasses which grow when it’s cooler), with the ability to produce moderate to high yields on marginal farmlands. In a new application, scientists have genetically modified switchgrass to enable it to produce a plastic, which accumulates in beadlike granules within the plant’s cells. Switchgrass is useful for soil conservation and amendment. It has a deep fibrous root system – nearly as deep as the plant is tall, helping control soil and wind erosion. It was once one of the dominant species the tall grass prairie, holding that soil in place and feeding huge herds of bison. Plants host the caterpillars of several skipper species, including the Delaware skipper.  The seed are eaten by a variety of birds and small rodents. Tender young foliage is browsed by deer and livestock and dense upright growth provides winter cover for wildlife.

There are some great varieties available:

  • Northwind — to 6’ Tall and upright. Great privacy screen
  • Heavy Metal — to 5’ Blue gray foliage, striking
  • Purple Tears — to 4’ Soft gray, flowering spikes with purple seed heads and purple leaf tips
  • Shenandoah — to 4’ Beautiful fall color – red leaves and tan seed heads
  • Cape Breeze — to 3’ More compact and arching form, great substitute for invasive maiden grass. More salt tolerant, beautiful, graceful seed heads

Switchgrass is an essential part of the fall garden, it is beautiful mixed with Coneflowers, Asters, Coreopsis, Goldenrods, and Little Bluestem. Try a few today!

By Liz Nalle, contributor to the Coastal Point Newspaper