More Than One Reason Why Bluegrass Is Blue

Kentucky bluegrass

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

Home and garden writers sometimes engage in rather imaginative prose about why bluegrass is blue since it is surely the greenest grass on God’s green earth. Hardly anyone knows the real reason for the name except a few dedicated grass farmers because most people never see bluegrass that is not mowed every week.

If allowed to grow and head out, there’s a bit of blue on the tips of the blossoms when they first appear. If you see a whole field of blooming bluegrass shimmering in the wind, you will notice a definite bluish cast to it. That hint of blue in the seed head turns quickly to mauve, and then to brown as the seed heads mature. I was late taking the photo above, so I enhanced the blue a little on the computer to make the bluegrass heads look like they do when they are in early bloom.

There are other reasons why bluegrass would be blue if it had human feelings. Although I am convinced that, all things considered, it is the best all-around grazing grass, (owners of Kentucky horse farms and astute dairy farmers agree), many pasture farmers producing livestock products on mostly a rotational grazing regimen prefer ryegrass. Bluegrass is even listed sometimes as an invasive alien plant. That would make me blue too. It is true that Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pretensis) came here from Europe with the pioneers and amazingly overran eastern America in hardly a century, but this is good news, not bad.

After many years of trying to perfect a rotational grazing program for small garden farmers who want to raise some of their own meat, eggs or dairy products cheaply and without hard labor, I have developed a great respect for bluegrass. First of all, it is loved by all grazing animals, including chickens. Here’s other reasons.

Bluegrass will grow spontaneously throughout much of the north temperate world— wherever there is 35 to 40 inches of rainfall a year and a soil pH between  6 to 7. It is a free gift from nature. You don’t have to buy seed if you aren’t in a hurry. Just keep mowing and grazing a field or plot, and bluegrass and its partner in saving the world, white clover, will take over. Once established, bluegrass is there forever, barring nuclear annihilation. This is not true of ryegrass. Nor is ryegrass as palatable to grazing animals. Sometimes I am tempted to believe that farmers distrust bluegrass because in our culture, we have been brainwashed into believing that anything that seems to be free must have something wrong with it. Bluegrass will eventually form a solid sod that will keep out most weeds if grazing is well managed (not too much or not to little) and mowing or hoeing is done when necessary to knock out weeds and tree seedlings that livestock won’t eat. Remember too that many kinds of weeds and tree seedlings are quite palatable and nutritious for animals.

Secondly, managing bluegrass correctly is something almost all homeowners in the northern two-thirds of the United States and Canada already know how to do. Bluegrass is their major lawn grass. Some of them know more about growing it than farmers do. (I have seen lawns in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, so well cared for that they could be grazed even in a January thaw.) Therefore getting started with a small bluegrass pasture does not require the acquisition of new knowledge which is what holds back beginning farmers so often. It also means that buying equipment is not necessary because most homeowners are overpowered in the mower department anyway and can use their present equipment to mow several acres of pasture twice a summer, which is usually about all the mowing necessary when grazing is properly managed. If they want to irrigate part of their mini-pastures, they can do small sections at a time with hose and sprinkler. Bluegrass’s one fault is that it tends to grow dormant in dry August, and irrigation can help that somewhat. Everyone who mows lawn knows this.

Thirdly bluegrass has an affinity for white clover, which also grows wild and spontaneously in much of the world. The two plants have what botanists call a symbiotic relationship with each other. They like to grow together, the clover drawing nitrogen from the air for free to invigorate the grass. Both plants can stand, even seem to enjoy, being grazed right down to the ground, if given a chance to regrow between times.

Some pasture farmers, like lawn owners, are always looking for improved varieties of bluegrass. I am trying one I got from Byron Seeds LLC, 9820 N. 750 E,  Marshall, Indiana 47859, called Slezanka. It comes from Hungary where bluegrass is native, not Kentucky, if you can imagine that. I just sprinkled the seed on top of a weedy pasture in the fall. Some of it took and is growing and spreading as vigorously as ryegrass. There are improved American bluegrasses too, available from lawn and garden suppliers. Sometimes they are better than the wild bluegrass, sometimes not.

The fascinating thing about Kentucky bluegrass is that, unique among forage plants, it is able to form viable embryos without actual union of male and female gametes. That means it is difficult to hybridize intentionally, but that in natural growth, your bluegrass may not be quite the same as mine. That’s why I watch mine closely, hoping for natural improvement. There is a patch behind the barn that seems to grow better than the rest of the native bluegrass. I occasionally set plugs of it in other fields, but I do so in a rather haphazard way (my wife says I do everything in a haphazard way) so I have nothing momentous to report yet.

There are other species of bluegrass, none as desirable as Kentucky bluegrass, although now crosses between Kentucky and Texas bluegrass provide a better forage plant for the deep south where Kentucky bluegrass doesn’t grow well.

Kentucky bluegrass will start to grow even in warm spells in winter. If the temperature gets up to 50 for a few days in January, little fine blades of it creep out of the ground. You might not notice, but sheep will. Here in northern Ohio, bluegrass will make a little pasture beginning in late March, and full pasture from April into  December, with some dormancy in late summer, depending on rainfall. I don’t know any other grass that has that long a season without any reseeding whatsoever.

So. If you have decided to do something more with that little field behind your house than just using it to exercise your mower, divide it into plots for rotational grazing and welcome bluegrass and white clover. In much of North American, they are going to come to you anyway whether you want them or not.
See also Gene’s A Quiet Revolution Is Coming To A Farm Near You
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: Gene Logsdon |
Gene’s Posts

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