Native Warm-Season Grasses

Butterfly at Southall Farm

At this moment, the Farm at Southall is blanketed in a four-inch layer of soft snow, the kind we only get once every several years in Middle Tennessee. But just below, life underground is waking up. Next week, when the forecast is calling for sun and temperatures near 60 degrees, it will be clear from tiny pops of green seen across the landscape that spring is just around the corner.

Among Southall’s 325 acres are pockets of pasture, long covered by fescue, Johnson grass, orchard grass and other species that did not originate in the United States. Three hundred years ago, this area was essentially all forest, dotted with little open patches of native warm-season grasses. But as Europeans colonized the new frontier over decades and centuries, quarter-acre homesteads carved out of the virgin timber ultimately became large swaths of land cleared for agriculture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service was founded in 1933 to provide technical assistance to farmers and private landowners, and over time has evolved into an incredible resource for folks interested in everything from erosion control to wildlife habitat restoration. Over the past year, NRCS conservationists have been working with Southall to combat the non-native and invasive flora and replace it with species that attract, feed and protect not only the more familiar residents like white-tailed deer and wild turkey, but the songbirds, pollinators and other beneficial species that create a full-circle ecosystem as nature intended.

While the effort requires intensive ongoing management, it’s worth it—and for all the right reasons. Custom seed blends have been planted with specialized equipment for different microcosms, from the part-shade savannahs in old-growth forest that look more like the pre-settlement days, to a riparian blend planted on the creek banks, to a curated set of native grasses and flowering plants that attract pollinators, provide functional cover for wildlife and create beautiful vistas for visitors in more open areas of the farm.

On a sparsely treed hillside, for instance, bunching native warm-season grasses such as little bluestem and bottlebrush grass might be interspersed with bursts of wildflowers to create the savannah: white snakeroot, wingstem, wild indigo, columbine and more. In the riparian zones, where there’s potential for seasonal flooding and erosion, some shade and a higher year-round water table, Virginia wild rye, river oats, Eastern gamma grass and shallow sedge replace the invasive privet that has been manually removed, and are complemented by bloomers like showy tickseed, sweet joe pye weed and cardinal flower.

For butterflies and hummingbirds, fields of red tubular species have replaced the former invasive grass monoculture. From spring to fall, smooth beardtongue, bergamot, spiked blazing star, smooth aster, monkey flower, milkweed and others will be putting on a show, along with the winged wonders they attract.

Altogether, dozens of species of native grasses and wildflowers have been incorporated into the landscape. Some will be readily visible from the moment you pull in the drive at Southall, yet some are tucked away. Picture walking through miles of trails among soaring hardwoods and coming upon a clearing in the woods swarming with bees and butterflies, helping to deliver a thousand pounds of honey annually from three apiaries on property, and ensuring pollination of the vegetable and fruit crops that end up on your plate at dinnertime!

When the land was cleared by settlement so many years ago, resulting in the removal of more than 90 percent of native grassland in the eastern United States, it impacted countless species of grassland birds, insects and other wildlife. While much progress has been made in conservation and habitat restoration in Middle Tennessee over the last 50 years, much is yet to be done. Some of the critters we’re working to attract remain on the endangered species list, but we’re proud to do our part. The modern conservation movement, along with mindful agricultural production, is making headway in repairing the land for the benefit of future generations.

Here at Southall, we can’t wait to share our progress with you. And, with any luck, our grand opening next summer will have many of these long-absent guests of honor finally back in attendance.