By Donna Iverson
Photo by Mary Aten
If you're from Michigan, chances are you are familiar with dune grass planted along the Great Lake to stabilize the shifting sand dunes.
But what you may not be so familiar with is dune grass as a landscaping plant. Due to Michigan's sandy soil and increasingly warm temperatures, more and more ornamental grasses are finding their way into yards, around commercial buildings and in city parks. And some of it is our own dune grass, Ammophila breviligulata. This beach grass is native to North America and grows around the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic Coast.
Dune grass is a tall erect perennial with elongated flower spikes and long subsurface rhizomes, that can reach 20 feet deep into the sandy, shifting dune mounds. It also grows verticals rhizomes, thus stitching the dune in place.
In our area, dune grass is sold by the Muskegon Conservation District located in Twin Lake. It is sold in bundles of 100 plugs in the spring and fall, which are the best planting times, according to Chad Hipshier, assistant executive director of the organization. Right now is the time to order for fall planting. A bundle of 100 plugs cost $15 and pickup date is September 10. They are located at 4735 Holton Road and their telephone number is 231.828.5097.
While some people may consider dune grass as an accent plant, photographer Mary Aten on Muskegon is considering replacing her entire lawn with it. But you must have the right conditions to grow dune grass successfully, warns Hipshier. Dune grass needs lots of sunshine and sandy dry soil.
“And if you think you could just go dig some up on Lake Michigan to give it a try, that is illegal,” said Hipshier.
Also your neighbors might not appreciate it. A community gardener in Muskegon tried growing it in the terrace way between the road and the sidewalk. An unhappy neighbor called the city's building inspectors calling it a "weed" and she was forced to remove it.
While only a few Michiganders are growing dune grass as a landscape plant, increasing numbers of people are planting ornamental grasses, that look like beach grass. Ornamental grasses that remind you of dune grass are admired for their stark beauty and easy care. They are drought resistant needing little water and free of most pests and plant diseases. Maintenance is extremely low.
Ornamental grasses are being planted in parks, in the back of townhouses, around garbage bins, next to commercial establishments, and even around telephone poles. Trying to figure out what varieties of ornamental grasses these were, I contacted Barry's Nursery on Whitehall Road. I took some photos of these ornamental grasses and emailed them to Barry's asking for plant identification information. Dawn Barry replied the same day and said the most popular ornamental grass sold in the area is Cslamagrostis Karl Foerster. A dune-grass look alike, Karl Foerster is better suited to most people's soil unless you live near the beach, she said.
So if you want to give dune grass a place in your yard, now is planting time. Winter is a coming.
Note: Mary Aten's photographic prints of Lake Michigan dune grass are available for purchase on her website (atenphoto.com) and at the Muskegon Farmers Market.