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Garden Q&A: On grass, a native ornamental and when to seed

Gray prairie dropseed is a native ornamental grass.
Gray prairie dropseed is a native ornamental grass. (Ellen Nibali/For The Baltimore Sun)

I saw a little bird repeatedly jump up to pin down the stem and eat the seeds off this ornamental grass. Smart bird and very entertaining. What is this grass so I can plant some?

Happily, this is gray prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heteroplesis), a native North American grass that is well behaved and tidy.

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It slowly grows into an arching clump about 2-3 feet high that deer do not bother. Though it needs full sun, it is not picky about soil type, preferring drier soil and tolerating drought once established. It flowers as many ornamental grasses in August-September, sending up sturdy but fine stems topped with an inflorescence that becomes a delicate spray of seeds.

They self-seed only sparely, so an all-around charmer in the garden — and obviously relished by birds. Plant a single specimen or group to make a groundcover.

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Since tall fescue is a “cool season grass,” should I wait until it gets colder to plant grass seed?

The sooner the better. The seed will germinate faster in warm soil.

Plus, you don’t want to contend with falling autumn leaves. Fallen leaves can prevent seed from germinating, and trying to remove those leaves can rip tender seedlings from the soil. Some trees start dropping leaves by the end of September — stressed trees even sooner. So, plant seed as soon as you can.

Fall is always the best time to sow seed grass, but the “fall” window starts in late August. An early start gives new grass more time to get established before facing cold and frozen soil, though you may have to water more at first.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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