Growing Meadow Grasses at Storm King Art Center

The day I visited Storm King Art Center, landscape architect and consultant Darrel Morrison led a group of us on a tour of the native meadow grasses that are so much a part of this world-famous sculpture park in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Darrel has played a key role in developing Storm King’s tall grass program for 17 years, and his enthusiasm for the plants is infectious. I was not surprised, therefore, when I found myself wondering not whether the switchgrass (Panicum vergatum) would have been quite as lovely without the sculpture by Tal Streeter behind it, but whether the sculpture would have caught my interest quite as much had the grasses not been there.

 Tal Streeter’s Endless Column with switchgrass in the foreground

As we walked with Darrel, he introduced us, one-by-one, to the native grasses that make their home at Storm King. Here are some of the things we learned from Darrel about growing meadow grasses and wildflowers.

Darrel Morrison, Storm King Art Center landscape architect and consultant 

Native Northeast and Midwest Grasses
The native grasses grown at Storm King are warm-season grasses. They originated on the prairie where conditions were typically hot and dry during the growing season. They adapted by developing deep roots that find moisture in the soil and allow them to survive periods of drought. Darrel surprised us all when he told us the native grasses’ roots go as deep as twice (or a bit more) the height of the plant, so a 6-foot Big bluestem may have roots that are 12 to 15 feet deep. He also added that one plant can live for decades, or even a century—as long as many tree species.

In addition to switchgrass and Big bluestem, warm-season native grasses at Storm King include Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans); Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); purpletop tridens (Tridens flavus); Canadian wildrye (Elymus canadensis); and sideoats grama grass (Bouteloua curtipendula). He also planted the legume, partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), in many of the plantings as an early-successional species which phases out over time. He told us a good source for seeds is Ernst Conservation Seeds in Meadville, Pa.

Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Maintaining a Meadow Garden
A meadow garden designed for aesthetics and native habitat attraction (rather than for haying or grazing) is not maintenance free. Where we live, a field that is left to its own devices will revert to primarily woody plants and trees over time. Other unwanted plants, including cool-season grasses such as fescue and invasives, need to be stymied. There are two programs for maintaining a meadow: either controlled burning or mowing. At Storm King they burn the fields each spring, after cutting the grass low in wide swaths around the sculptures and any nearby trees. Usually they burn in April, after the cool-season crops have begun to grow but before the warm-season crops have emerged. (This spring was an early spring and burning took place in March). The same principle applies to mowing, although mowing is less effective because it doesn’t take care of thatch and plant litter that builds up over time.

Ronald Bladen’s Three Elements with tall meadow grasses in the foreground

What Is an Invasive?
I have heard people refer to switchgrass as an invasive, so I asked Darrel for his thoughts on the subject. He prefers to call it “aggressive” because, he says, “It is widely adapted to a variety of soil and moisture conditions, and hence may dominate an area.” But unlike a true invasive, such as Purple loosestrife, “Switchgrass is a native, and it functions much better for erosion and sedimentation control, partly because the foliage remains through the winter.”  And, he adds, “There is the soft texture of the seed heads and the graceful movement in the breeze, [as well as] the sequence of color from fresh bright green in early summer to gold-changing-to-tan in the fall and winter.”

We learned that milkweed (Asclepias syrica), a plant I might be inclined to pull out, attracts Monarch butterflies, and it is good for the fields. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is fine, too. Purple loosestrife is not. It had to be eradicated several years ago at Storm King through the limited use of a herbicide.

Wildflowers in the Meadow Garden
Darrel is introducing select native wildflowers to Storm King to help increase diversity of both plant material and animal life. Flowers attract butterflies and other nectar seekers. There had been a concern that introducing too much color in the landscape would detract from the sculptures, so the plan is to create the feeling of “flecks of color” among the grasses, using an 80/20 ratio of grasses to flowers. “The narrow leaves of the grasses will hold things together visually, acting almost like threads in a tapestry,”  Darrel says. Wildflowers (or forbs) at Storm King include native wild versions of baptisia, butterfly weed and pale blue aster.

Darrel recommended a book to our group, for those of us interested in learning more about native grasses and wildflowers, called Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy.

My visit to Storm King brought the grasses and meadows into high relief thanks to Darrel Morrison. But the sculpture is the primary reason most people visit the grounds, and it does not disappoint. All of the major names in 20th century sculpture are represented—Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Richard Serra—as well as site-specific works by Maya Lin and Andy Goldsworthy. Here are some of my favorite pieces at Storm King Art Center.

Mermaid by Roy Lichtenstein

Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy (2 photos)

Spheres by Grace Knowlton

Sea Change by George Cutts

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Dorian Winslow is the president of Womanswork, and is passionate about making the best products on the market for women who garden and work outdoors.

Horticulture publishes the free weekly e-newsletter, “Smart Gardening Tips,” and “The Curious Gardener,” a free monthly e-newsletter with tips and articles by Dorian. Subscribe to our e-newsletters.

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About Dorian Winslow

Dorian Winslow, the president of Womanswork, is passionate about making the best products on the market for women who garden and work outdoors. She writes several "Curious Gardener" articles each month for Hortmag.com.

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