Eric’s Pet Plant: Switchgrass (Panicum Virgatum), with a bonus trip to Storm King

Sculpture at Storm King

“This is what happens when your I-phone lens gets dirty,” Eric explained when he sent this picture,” and of course I have a plastic cover on it to protect the poor device from my unhealthy-for-digital-equipment lifestyle. Sorry for that. But the Switchgrass just behind the sculpture adds an interesting texture, with a life of its own on a breezy day.”

This round, Eric’s Pet Plant is from Storm King, and his article is a reminder of two very important things:

* When you have help that’s really helpful, whether it’s from interns like Eric’s at Marsh Gardens or pros like the invaluable Kristi Niedermann at my place, say thank you a lot – and it doesn’t hurt to bestow a present now and then, either.

* Get out and look around. When your own garden is doing well (though still needing work, likely as not) it’s easy to just stay put. Don’t. I never hit as many of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days as I think I’m going to, but I do try…

Storm King, Summer Interns and Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)

By Eric Larson

Storm King With Interns

Every summer, we take a field trip with our staff to one of the many gardens, arboreta or other attractions within a couple of hours ride of New Haven. In the past we have been to Smith College’s fabulous arboretum/gardens, to the New York Botanic Gardens and Wave Hill in the Bronx among others.  This year we went to Storm King Arts Center, in the Hudson Valley.

Its history includes having been a farm and estate, then being purchased by an industrialist who started the arts center in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, they decided that their strengths included a certain scale of presentation that would best be suited to monumental outdoor sculpture.

Since then they have installed works by David Smith, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Mark di Suvero and Maya Lin, among many others.  One of our favorites was the long serpentine wall by Andy Goldsworthy through the woods and the pond and over meadows.

The day was “made out of diamonds” as Van Johnson said in Miracle in the Rain, with a pleasant breeze, low humidity and a nice mid-eighties temperature. The property is about a thousand acres, and can be viewed on foot in a few hours. There is a tram that will help move you around if you have less time or energy for walking, and they also rent bicycles.

We rode the tram for a full circle, had a picnic lunch (although there is a café there, it is only open on select end-of-week days) and then split up to view different areas that interested each of us.

Heading back to the parking lot, I noticed a large meadow planted in Panicum virgatum, shimmering as a backdrop to several pieces of large sculpture.  I thought “What a great place for a picture, and a great plant to feature in this column.”

Because we met there, I also took the opportunity to snap a picture or two of our two full-time summer interns (we have a third who started in late June, and works semi-part time: I will write about him later, before he heads off to his first year at Colby).

Our summer interns are barely tolerating my presence in this picture on a couch made of nickels, which was more comfortable than you would think.

Next to me is Michelle Shortsleeves with Sibongile (Bongi) Sithe on the other end. We would not be the same garden without their good work and other contributions too numerous to mention.

Bongi is a native of Cincinnati entering her senior year at Yale. She majors in English, but has an interest in just about any aspect of culture, from music to film.  She applied for the job in the spring, despite being in Scotland for the semester.

She introduced me to ‘Skipe’ so that we could have an interview. I never would have thought that I would be doing that by computer and satellite, but indeed it happened. It must work, because we couldn’t be happier with Bongi’s work and her great sense of humor.  Her laugh is absolutely infections, and she is also an absolutely fabulous cook and baker: a cake appeared close to a cluster of staff birthdays in early July, and it was not lost on us that baking in an un-air-conditioned apartment is indeed a labor of love.

Michelle Shortsleeve is mostly Irish, but with an ancestor from France who was a member of the royal archers, hence the last name.  She hails from Massachusetts, and has just completed a master’s degree in education program at Yale, preparing for a full time job in one of the public schools here in New Haven.

We couldn’t have asked for more from a summer intern, as she has an attention to detail and an interest in gardening and nature that belies her more academic background.  She gets the Golden Roots Award for being the best weeder; this award comes with a gift certificate for carpal tunnel repair surgery.   Michelle has many charms, not the least of which being she will make a GREAT public school teacher.


Switchgrass is a native perennial grass, its range extending across the middle of the continent, from Saskatchewan east to Nova Scotia and south to Mexico.  It shares the tallgrass prairie biomes with Indaingrass, Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, sideoats grama, eastern gramagrass and many species of forbs, like sunflower, coneflower, gayfeather, prairie clover and in Texas, the bluebonnet.

In thinking about writing this article, I tried to research reasons for the common name, Switchgrass, to no avail. It is not explained anywhere I looked.  It could be so named because in some locations it grows tall enough to be used as a ‘switch’ to encourage the horses in a wheeled conveyance, say a buggy or even a Conestoga wagon.

A bit darker interpretation would suggest corporal punishment, but let’s leave that one alone.  Perhaps Northern Europeans used it for the after-sauna stimulation.  The genus name comes from the Latin word for millet, which it resembles somewhat.

Switchgrass is highly adaptable and widely avaialable. It grows best in full sun, in deep fertile soil: think the prairie. But it will also live in marginal areas with thin soils, wet and boggy areas, soils with salt intrusion, alkaline soils, sandy and gravel soils and clay.  You can buy seed for large-scale plantings, or you can find many ornamental varieties in pots  at nurseries.

Let’s talk about ornament first: This is a warm season grass, so does well in the summer.  With a very upright growth habit, it will rise from 2 to 10 feet depending on the variety and conditions.  There are selections and varieties of Switchgrass with steel-blue stems and leaves with a bright yellow fall color, some with red seed-heads and yellow autumn coloration. They aren’t just green, but change hues subtly through the seasons.

The upright growth habit is equally useful in the border and as an accent in the landscape.  During the winter, the thick fountain of dried leaf stalks makes an interesting wind sculpture, and freshly fallen snow adds a bit of poignancy to the scene.

In spring, before new growth starts, it is best to cut the dried stalks to the ground, so that they don’t interfere with the young tender growth or detract from the look of the plant in the early part of the season.

Besides its wonderful ornamental pulchritude, Switchgrass is a major player in the biofuels debate. Unlike corn, which is an annual that must be planted and cultivated in good crop land every year, Switchgrass is a perennial. It can be harvested without the extra effort of corn and also grows well in marginal land, so using it wouldn’t automatically reduce our abilities to grow food.

In addition, the deep root system is a carbon sink, removing carbon from the air and fixing it in extensive roots that go down at least five sometimes ten feet in the ground.

Switchgrass is also used for soil conservation, for the same reasons: good deep perennial roots, lives in marginal soil, grows rapidly and lives a long time. It’s good for forages and grazing, and for game cover, too.

So bring a bit of the prairie into the garden, and enjoy the three seasons of interest that Switchgrass can provide.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed within bear no relationship to Marsh Botanical Garden or Yale University or Leslie Land. This is sort of a blog, which means, as far as I can tell, that first of all it’s free, and second there is no guarantee of the accuracy of the information – although I can assure you I won’t be making claims that might get a minor functionary in the Agriculture Dept. fired. But I will try to be as accurate and forthright as possible.  That’s how I was raised.

(Sculpture Note: The red zigzag is Tal Streeter’s Endless Column, which continues out of the frame to a total height of 70 feet. The Nickel Couch is by Johnny Swing. LL)

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