Switchgrass: 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year and A Biofuel?

Not all varieties of switchgrass were awarded the “Perennial Plant of the Year” designation in 2014.  Just one lucky winner, Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ earned that coveted title.

This is an exciting opportunity for switchgrass or native plant fans to share what they admire about this native grass.

USDA NRCS Map: Panicum virgatum L. switchgrass is native throughout much of the United States.

Panicum virgatum L. switchgrass is native throughout much of the United States.

Why consider ‘Northwind’ switchgrass for your landscape?

Dr. Mary Meyer, Extension horticulture professor and ornamental grass researcher at the University of Minnesota, has evaluated the performance of ‘Northwind’ switchgrass in trials at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum since 2004.  In her Grasstalk blog post ‘Northwind’ 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year, she specifically shares how ‘Northwind’ has performed in her research. Below, we turn to research to provide three reasons you might like to grow ‘Northwind’ switchgrass in your landscape.

1) Great form, function, structure, winter interest

For many across the U.S., ‘Northwind’ switchgrass might be a good fit to grow in the landscape, offering vertical form, fine texture, and winter interest. Dr. Mary Meyer shares just why this plant can be valuable to many as a landscape plant:

As a screen, background plant, or in combination with other perennials, ‘Northwind’ is an attractive and showy grass. It is easy to grow and has no pests or disease problems. It stands up well in winter and provides cover and food for birds and other wildlife. Deer do not eat switchgrass, so it is good to use where deer have been a problem. And, as a dense bunchgrass, ‘Northwind’ will not spread underground, since it has minimal or no rhizomes and forms a dense clump. Self-seeding is often seen in switchgrass, however, ‘Northwind’ is not known for heavy seed set and has not been a problem self-seeder in our trials.

Northwind switchgrass in landscape

Northwind switchgrass in landscape

2) Well-adapted to many soil types and winter hardy

Another great reason to consider growing ‘Northwind’ switchgrass,  is that it has been shown to be adapted to many soils and hardiness zones. As Dr. Meyer’s ‘Northwind’ 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year blog posts states:

‘Northwind’ grows between 4-6 feet in height in Minnesota. It grows well in many soil types, including heavy clay and sandy soils. Soils with more moisture will mean a taller plant. Full sun is preferred, at least 6 hours daily. Fall color is beige. Some reports of winter loss have been noted, however plants at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, USDA Zone 4a (-200F to -250F) had not been lost since planting in 2004. ‘Northwind’ is also one of 17 selections of switchgrass in the National Grass Trials which are planted in 11 states, including the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, see  grasstrials.com for more information.

3) Tell your neighbor, switchgrass may someday fuel your car!

OK, I bet you weren’t expecting this last reason to grow ‘Northwind’ switchgrass. Dr. Meyer isn’t selecting new varieties of switchgrass for biofuel, but did you know there are researchers studying and breeding switchgrass for biofuel production?

Switchgrass grown for biofuels in field

Dr. Casler is breeding switchgrass to become a suitable biofuel source someday.

As part of this research,  Extension Master Gardeners in Minnesota and Iowa are involved in CenUSA Bioenergy research to see if biochar, a by-product of coverting switchgrass to biofuel, might make a suitable soil amendment for home gardens (read more about this on-going research in these CenUSA Bioenergy EMG  blog posts). By growing common vegetables and flowers that homeowners often plant, such as tomatoes, peppers, and zinnias, Extension Master Gardeners are exploring whether the plants grown in plots amended with biochar will grow more vigorously or produce higher yields.

Northwinds switchgrass in research plots at the U of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

‘Northwind’ switchgrass in research plots at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

It’s very unlikely homeowners will be growing switchgrass for biofuel (farmers and landowners who aren’t able to grow typical crops, very likely will) and you won’t see switchgrass-based  biochar as a commercial soil amendment in the immediate future. However, in the meantime, consider following this research to learn about the possibilities. Plant some ‘Northwind’ switchgrass around your patio and invite your friends over for a barbeque. This will make for some interesting discussion around the grill next summer! 

Are you growing switchgrass in your landscape?

-Karen Jeannette
Research Associate, University of Minnesota
CenUSA Bioenergy project





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4 Responses to “Switchgrass: 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year and A Biofuel?”

  1. Gladys Hutson says:

    Great article ! I think that I have some areas that I could grow this. I do like the way that it looks. So I would treat this as I would any other grass? Cut it down in the early spring for it to start growing again?

  2. Karen Jeannette says:

    Yes, Gladys — Switchgrass is a warm season grass, so cutting off the old dead material first thing in the spring should work! Mary has more information about cutting grasses back at http://grasstalk.wordpress.com/grass-clean-up/

  3. Kate Sutton says:

    Really nice article. As a scientist working in biofuels research, it’s very neat to see a less technical audience be exposed to biofuels via their own garden! One comment: pyrolysis, which is the process that generates the BioChar you reference in the article, is only one way to utilize switchgrass and other sources of cellulosic biomass for biofuels. Enzymatic hydrolysis of the plant matter into sugars and then fermentation of those sugars to ethanol is another way to generate renewable fuels. There are several cellulosic ethanol plants coming online in the next year using this technology with other plant residues.

  4. Karen Jeannette says:

    Thank you for your interest and update Kate. It’s been really interesting learning the science behind biofuels. I had my first in-depth look at the process last summer at Purdue (https://publish.extension.org/mastergardener/2013/08/27/cenusa-annual-meeting-helps-extension-master-gardeners-connect-native-grass-biochar-and-biofuel-research/). It’s also interesting to hear about enzymatic hydrolysis. I’m not certain if/how enzymatic hydrolysis is being considered within the scope of this project. However, there is an entire objective on this grant just looking at feedstock conversion. More about the work and scientists involved in feedstock conversion can be found at https://www.cenusa.iastate.edu/Harvest/FeedstockConversion