By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Orchardgrass is native to western and central Europe but was introduced to North America in the late 1700’s as pasture hay and forage. What is orchardgrass? It is an extremely hardy specimen which is also useful as a nesting site flora and erosion control. Wild and domesticated grazing animals find the grass palatable. It has been classed as a restricted noxious weed in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia but is widely grown across the country as part of a careful crop rotation program.
Orchardgrass uses span more than erosion, fodder, hay, silage, and natural ground cover. It also enhances the nitrogen in soil when planted deep with abundant water. As manure and biosolids, it returns high levels of this necessary macronutrient to the soil. There are a wide variety of orchardgrass growing conditions suitable for this tolerant plant.
Orchardgrass is also known as cocksfoot. It is a cool-season, perennial bunching grass. What does orchardgrass look like? This true grass can grow 19 to 47 inches (48.5 to 119.5 cm.) in height with leaf blades up to 8 inches (20.5 cm.) in length. Leaves are broadly tapered to a point and the base is v-shaped. Sheaths and ligules are smooth and membranous.
The inflorescence is a panicle up to 6 inches (15 cm.) long with two to five flowered spikelets in dense side clusters. It germinates early in the season and achieves the bulk of its growth in the cooler season.
Among the better orchardgrass uses is its ability to add nitrogen to the soil. Crucial to farmers regarding this bit of orchardgrass information is that it enhances the soil and nutrient content of hay even more when combined with legumes or alfalfa. If planted alone, the grass is harvested early in the season, but when combined with legumes, it is harvested when the legume is in late bud to early bloom for the most nutritious hay or silage.
Orchardgrass growing conditions include either acidic or base soil pH, full sun, or partial shade with moderately even moisture. It is found in disturbed areas, savannas, woodland borders, orchards, pastures, thickets, and fence rows. Provided site conditions are correct, it is easy to establish and durable. The plant even withstands cold winters to -30 F. (-34 C.) if insulated by snow.
Grass planted for erosion control is seeded or drilled in late summer to early autumn but that established for forage is planted in late winter to early spring. This provides the more tender shoots with the highest nutrition available for browsing animals.
The time for harvesting the plants depends upon the use. Harvest in early to mid-spring for hay. As tillage, it is turned under in late winter. If the grass is to be grazed, grazing can start in early spring until summer but late-season grazing should be discouraged. Leave some of the plants to form mature seed heads and allow them to reseed for a consistent supply of the plants.
With careful management, orchardgrass can perform a host of functions while adding nutrients and tilth to soil.
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Orchardgrass is usually seen as a rapid-growing weed when it sprouts on a lawn. It is a perennial grass that can grow tall, and it also can grow in almost any soil condition. An easy home remedy can rid your yard of orchardgrass in just a few days.
Study your lawn to determine where orchardgrass is growing. Try to determine its spreading pattern so you an anticipate where it is going to sprout up next. It resembles a tall, thick grass with a wheat-like bushy top.
Fill a spray bottle with the white vinegar and do not add anything else. You will need about 2 cups of vinegar for every square foot of the weed.
Spray the orchardgrass at a close range with the vinegar, making sure to completely saturate the area where it is growing.
Watch the orchardgrass, as it should start to dry up after 30 minutes and be completely dead within two days. Remove any dead orchardgrass with your hands and discard. If it is not all gone, repeat the process.
A highly productive grass for grazing, hay production orchard grass is also very palatable to livestock and deer. Orchard grass can be used as an ornamental grass, pasture grass and in wildlife food plots.
Orchard Grass seed is easy to establish with the planting of legumes and other food sources and can be grown in the shadier areas where some other grasses won’t grow. As a forage grass it is highly edible and helps to provide protein in the diet of the four footed species. It also produces seeds which are eaten by many birds and smaller animals. The growth provides covering from predators and nesting areas. With the addition of a legume such as clover it is an added perennial that will need only fertilizer added occasionally to improve growth. It is a bunch type grass
Thus orchard grass has uses in the pasture as well as in wildlife food plotsas deer will graze it, turkey and other birds will feed off the seeds and insects that thrive in this type of grass. Orchard grass also makes a great cover for game birds such as quail and pheasants.
The color of the leaves of orchard grass ranges from green to bluish - green and is it one of the few grasses that grow well under trees. Orchard grass can be used as an ornamental grass or as a groundcover for shady areas. As you can seed in the picture above, the blooms on orchard grass are also quite attractive.
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Below you will find generalized information about planting and establishing Orchard Grass seed. See orchard grass seed information at Seedland.com for specific brands and their details.
ADAPTATION: Northeastern USA and central USA into British Columbia with high rainfall (app. 20 in. yearly) and irrigated lands. Adapted for well drained soils and grows well under trees. Hence the name orchard grass.
USAGE: Pastures, silage, hay, and green chop manures, and valued in manure recycling systems.
PREPARATION: Soil testing, with the application of the nutrients needed. It requires a pH between 5.8-7.0. Properly cultivated, packed and with loose soil on top and to depth of Ѕ in. if planted ј in. if with legumes.
SEEDING RATE: Drilled 3-5lb/a or broadcast at 15-20lb/a depending on watering and planned usage For best results packing should follow broadcasting of seed.
WATERING: Prefers a lot of water whether rainfall or irrigation.
MAINTENANCE: For pastures the rotational system must be employed to promote consistent growth. Orchard grass should not be grazed lower than 2 inches.
FERTILIZATION: Planted alone for pasturage 40-60 lbs. N per acre three times a year and for haying, silage, and green chop higher levels of N at the rate of 200-300 per acre per year. If planted with legumes lower N to under 50 LB/a at any one application. Summer application of nitrogen is not advised.
ESTABLISHMENT: The cultivation of a spring or late summer pasture or wildlife food plot depends upon the wet or dry conditions, temperatures and primarily the soil in your area. Plant orchard grass in the Fall or Spring, not during the Summer months.
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Seedland is dedicated to providing the best in native grass seed for pasture, ornamental or bio-fuel uses. We carry certified orchard grass seed varieties Potomac™ and the exciting new Persist™ Brand at our online store Seedland.com.
For more information on planting orchard grass seed for pastures please visit our informational website www.farmseeds.com and see our section on certified orchard grass seed at Seedland.com.
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Depending upon the type of fruit trees you decide to plant, you can be sure that when you plant an orchard, it will be around for at least 60 years, or even more if you’ve prepared and cared for your trees well.
It’s crucial to locate the right place for your new orchard, so it thrives and is in an area that is desirable to you.
Look for a magical place that has the following characteristics:
The best place for an orchard is an area that has good drainage. So, no low marshy areas here. Most fruit trees don’t thrive in extremely wet areas.
If you live in a cold climate, and freezing is a concern, consider placing your orchard in an area out of the wind.
Trees that are planted on the north side of a hill will blossom late in the year, due to the suns location during the growing season.
Look for areas that aren’t full sun during the summer, as the soil needs to remain reasonably cool. Once your trees are taller, they will take care of this themselves. Soil needs to be well-drained and consist of about 3 feet of soft topsoil. Roots need to be able to stretch and grow.
If you have the space on your property, do your best to find a location that does not butt up to an agricultural field. While there are laws against pesticide and herbicide drift, you can’t guarantee that your farming neighbor will respect them (or have any control over the wind conditions on the days they spray).
On a side note: Fruit trees are pest magnets, and you may be tempted to spray your trees with harmful chemicals (harmful to the trees, pollinators, and your family). To head this off, consider researching a few disease-resistant trees for your woodlet.
Your new fruit grove should have as much sun as it can get during autumn, winter, and spring. So do the best you can with what you have.
Look for areas that won’t be towered over by buildings or other trees.
Legumes can fix nitrogen (N) from the atmosphere and in pure stands do not need additional N. Legumes, however, require higher rates of P and K than grasses and must be supplied these nutrients for good persistence and production. Although legumes fix their own N, grasses growing in association with the clover may benefit from low N rates. If N is used in grass-legume mixes, rates should be timed to minimize grass-legume competition and applied at rates that consider legume proportion of the sward (see below).
When tall fescue stands contain a good proportion of white, ladino or red clover, little or no nitrogen is needed. A general rule of thumb is not to apply nitrogen if the clover constitutes greater than 15 percent of the stand. If 5 to 15 percent clover is present, apply 30 to 40 pounds of N per acre if less than 5 percent clover is present, fertilize the pasture as a pure fescue or orchardgrass grass stand or plant additional clover. It may also be desirable to fertilize with moderate rates of N in early fall or late winter. This will stimulate early grass growth and, if grazed properly, will not negatively impact clover stands. Be sure to supply adequate P and K for best clover productivity and survival.
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Cool-season annual plants include small grains, such as rye, wheat, barley, and oats, and annual ryegrass. These plants are not primary horse-pasture species, but may furnish grazing in the late fall, early winter and early spring to complete a 12-month grazing program when other plants are not actively growing. Grazing small grains may increase the risk of colic, laminitis, and founder, so horses' exposure to cool-season annual pastures should be limited and monitored closely. It is important to remember that cool- and warm-season annuals must be replanted each year.
Small grains are adapted in all areas of Virginia and do well on soils with moderate drainage, fertility, and pH. They may be grazed continuously in the fall, early winter, and spring however, they do not form a tight sod, so horses should be removed from these pastures when the soil is wet. Rye is the small grain most commonly used for grazing animals because of its ability to provide fall and early-spring growth. Wheat, barley, and oats may also be grazed. Of the small grains for pasture, oats are more palatable but generally more sensitive to cold than other grains and may be killed in the winter. The seedheads of rye, along with other small grains, and some perennial grasses can become infected by an ergot fungus, which can cause equine ergotism. Ergotism has neurological effects including tremors and incoordination, and it may cause dry gangrene and abortions. Since the seedhead is required for the ergot fungus to infect the plant, simply not allowing seedheads to be produced in horse pastures will present ergotism.
Annual ryegrass is adapted to soils with moderate drainage, fertility and pH. It has shiny, dark green, smooth leaves and may grow two to three feet tall. Annual ryegrass is both highly digestible and extremely palatable, making it a desirable species to include in forage systems. In addition, annual ryegrass has high seedling vigor, making it well adapted to either conventional or no-till establishment. Under good growing conditions, annual ryegrass can produce grazable forage in as little as 45 to 60 days after planting. In Virginia, annual ryegrass is best adapted to the Southern Piedmont and Coastal Plains regions. Most annual ryegrass is sodseeded into permanently established warm-season grasses in order to extend the useful period of this land area. A disorder called ryegrass staggers, caused by a fungal endophyte that proliferates in perennial ryegrass, can be a problem for horses. However, this problem occurs only in perennial ryegrass, not annual ryegrass.
This publication has been reviewed by: Glenn Johnson, forage agronomist, Natural Resources and Conservation Service, Blacksburg, Va. Kate Norris, district manager, conservation specialist, Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District, Nokesville, Va. Ed Rayburn, forage agronomist, West Virginia University Extension Service, Morgantown, W.V. Jon Repair, Extension agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Crop and Soil Sciences, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Rockbridge County, Va. Ray Smith, Extension forage specialist, Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va. Carrie Swanson, Extension agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Animal Science, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County, Va. Carol Wilkinson, director, Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Blackstone, Va.
Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.
As a tall plant, maiden grass can be used in the back rows of flower beds to serve as a light-colored backdrop for black flowers and other dark plants, or it can be used in beds as a focal point, surrounded by smaller plants. Its fine texture provides a nice contrast to plants with coarse textures. Since it prefers soil on the moist side, consider using maiden grass around water features.
Given its height and dense growth pattern, maiden grass can be used in a mixed, loose shrub border for informal privacy screening or to create an ornamental grass hedge. Maiden grass also works well with the airy look sought in cottage gardens.
If none of these uses applies to your yard, simply use maiden grass as a specimen plant for winter landscapes.