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Switchgrass (Panicum Virgatum): A Native Grass with Many Uses

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Switchgrass is one of the most versatile plants available in North America. 

This native plant has qualities that make it practical for a variety of properties. It’s a hardy grass that can withstand harsh conditions. It grows quickly, and it doesn’t require extensive maintenance. Switchgrass also has a deep root system that helps to prevent soil erosion.

Additionally, switchgrass is an important crop for several industries and initiatives. It’s an excellent source of livestock feed. Planting it helps with wildlife conservation. And it could be a source of biofuel someday, replacing some of our dependence on petroleum products. 

With its many benefits, it’s no wonder this grass is becoming increasingly popular among agricultural communities nationwide.

 

What Is Switchgrass? 

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), also known as tall panic grass, is a warm-season grass native to North America. This perennial plant comes back every year—there’s no need to replant it.

You might have noticed this grass while out for walks in nature. Switchgrass grows naturally on prairies, woodlands, shores, riverbanks, and brackish marshes.

 

Panicum virgatum

 

Panicum virgatum, as it’s also known, comes in a wide variety of colors. These vary depending on the species, blend, and location: It may have blue-green leaves, appear golden-brown, or feature a deep red color.

Its natural range covers almost the entirety of the United States and most of southern Canada. This native perennial plant occurs naturally along the East Coast, throughout the Great Plains, and as far west as Arizona. Switchgrass isn’t one of the native plants of the West Coast, however.

 

Switchgrass native occurrence in North America

 

There are two subspecies of switchgrass. One is commonly found in the northern region (upland switchgrass), and the other grows in the southern region (lowland switchgrass). 

Switchgrass can grow nearly nine feet tall—and thanks to its deep rhizomatous roots, it’s also drought-tolerant and spreads slowly (but surely). 

 

Growing Conditions for Switchgrass

 

Switchgrass details

 

Switchgrass can be difficult to establish because of the high dormancy rate of the seed and extremely extensive root system. Weeds are a significant issue because they tend to choke out seeds before they germinate. 

However, if done right, switchgrass is one of the easiest grasses to plant. Once planted, you’ll see your switchgrass develop in only a few weeks. 

 

Soil Type

Seeding Rate

Planting Depth

Planting Date

Shade & Sun Tolerance

Drought Tolerance

Disease & Pest Tolerance

Tolerant of poor soil, like dry, salty soils, but thrives in clay, loam, or sandy soils

5 lbs. / acre

½ to ¾ inch

Should be planted in early spring after soil temperatures are above 60°F

Grows best in full sun and will tolerate partial shade, although it may flop; it does not tolerate too much shade 

Can go days or weeks without water; minimal water requirements

Disease and pest-tolerant due to the genetic and genomic bases and cell wall composition

 

What Can You Use Switchgrass For? 

For seasoned gardeners and farmers, switchgrass is a long-time favorite. It’s a consistently popular species due to its hardiness, deep roots, and versatility.

And if you’re new to switchgrass, you’ll want to learn more about one of the most resilient and beneficial grasses in North America. Here’s what this famous landscape plant can be used for: 

 

Wildlife Conservation 

Switchgrass may look plain, but it’s a plant that does a lot for its surrounding environment. Not only are its seeds delicious for birds, but the nearly nine-foot-tall grasses create excellent cover for deer, turkey, opossums, and other wildlife.

 

Deer hiding in the tall grass

 

The thick, hay-like ends of this tall prairegrass offer a perfect landing space and nest-building material for small birds. Switchgrass also acts as a vital winter cover⁠—it protects perennial crops whose seeds provide food for pheasants, quail, turkeys, doves, and songbirds.

 

Grazing in Pasture Systems

During the summer, switchgrass can be a nutritious grazing crop. Research has shown that this warm-season grass grows faster than other grazing grasses, which means more forage for your livestock. 

 

Percentage of total growth by month

 

You can also turn it into hay before it matures and becomes too stemmy for grazing. If you cut switchgrass before or just as the seedheads appear, you can create hay that is perfect for cattle and other livestock, like sheep and goats, to eat.

Additionally, according to the Insitute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, switchgrass is useful for weaning calves. The average yearling gains 1 ½ to 2 pounds per day when grazing on switchgrass. 

However, horses can have a phototoxic reaction to switchgrass. Be sure that your horses don’t have access to the new plants if you’re growing switchgrass for forage!

 

Soil Conservation and Erosion Control 

Erosion occurs when the earth’s natural materials—like fertile topsoil—are worn away or transported by wind or water. Every year, erosion wears down the country’s most productive farmlands, and billions of tons of soil are lost. There is less room for cropland and, therefore, less food.

To put the problem in perspective, soil erosion occurs 10 times faster than the soil replenishment rate in the United States. And erosion isn’t just a problem in the U.S. It’s also a huge issue in China and India—these countries are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster than their own replenishment rates.

One of the best ways to slow erosion is to plant native grasses, trees, and other types of vegetation.

 

Plants prevent erosion

 

Thanks to its long fibrous root system, switchgrass is an ideal plant for erosion control. The roots are so deeply-rooted into the ground that they hold the soil in place, even when harsh winds or water are present.

The tall blades of switchgrass also protect the fertile soil from the severe impact of rain, sleet, and hail, preventing soil runoff in almost any weather conditions. 

This tall, hardy plant also acts as a barrier in even the harshest winds, helping to keep the sediment in place. That’s why it’s a popular grass choice for sloped areas near water or flat drylands where wind or dust storms can occur.

 

Potential Biomass Crop for Energy Production

Perhaps the most exciting thing about switchgrass is that it’s currently being researched as a renewable biomass crop in the United States. 

In 1991, United States Department of Energy selected switchgrass as a potential energy crop that could be used to produce transportation fuel in the future.

Currently, transportation fuel is primarily made from petroleum, which is a nonrenewable resource. Like other fossil fuels, it harms the planet’s atmosphere by emitting greenhouse gases when burned.

In fact, the transportation sector emits more greenhouse gases than the electricity, industrial, commercial, residential, and agricultural sectors.

 

Sources of Greenhouse gas emissions

 

Switchgrass has several qualities that make it a perfect biomass crop. It is native and very adaptable to North America, but switchgrass also produces higher yields than other crops.

 

Ethanol yield

 

Switchgrass is also relatively easy to seed. As long as you properly care for the seed as it germinates and control weed growth, the grass should thrive.

Although “much work remains” in this area, switchgrass is so far an excellent biomass candidate because it can grow on millions of acres of land that can’t support other new plants or food production. So, in the future, instead of letting that land go unused, you can plant switchgrass as a renewable resource. 

 

Conclusion

Switchgrass is a versatile grass native to North America that grows well in many climates. It can be used for grazing, erosion prevention, and wildlife conservation. It also has potential as a future biomass crop.

With all this in mind, there’s really no question why switchgrass has become one of the most popular grasses in the United States. If you need switchgrass for your project, explore the selection of premium grass seed at Nature’s Seed.

Our expert team has decades of experience with grass seed, and we know how different plants, flowers, and grasses can provide preservation benefits or beautification for any type of property. We are happy to help you get started with this valuable—yet affordable—resource. 

Shop our seeds today.

 

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