There’s more to the grass family than just your lawn.
Grains and grasses (Poaceae) have long been a part of home gardens, landscapes, and agricultural fields. This group is the fifth-largest plant family and it includes cereal grains, bamboo, lemongrass, sugarcane, and coffee. [That last one surprised me, too.]
Let’s see how these plants are all related and how many of them may be good additions to your garden. To start, members of this group are usually divided into grasses and cereal grains.
Grasses are monocots with fibrous roots and hollow stems, except at the nodes. They have narrow leaves that appear alternately up the stem. Each of those leaves wraps around the stem, creating a leaf-sheath, rather than growing out of a petiole. Very often, you will see a fringe, called the ligule, where the sheath meets the stem. This growth is believed to keep water and pests from entering. It can also be used to help with plant identification.
Grass plants reproduce most commonly by seed, though some use rhizomes to create daughter plants, known as tillers. Grain seeds are encased in simple dried fruits called caryopses. Flowers of the grass family tend to form spikelets. These plants can be annuals or perennials, depending on the species.
Unlike most other plants, the meristem tissue [think undifferentiated stem cell] of grass family plants is found near the base of the plant, rather than higher up. This allows the plants to recover from grazing (and mowing).
These plants are all heavy feeders that use a lot of nitrogen. Planting them in blocks, rather than rows, increases pollination.
Cereal grains are classified as warm-season or cool-season cereals. Corn, millet, and sorghum are warm-season cereals that need lots of sunlight and heat to thrive and are better able to withstand drought. Cool-season cereals include barley, oats, rice, rye, spelt, wheat, and wild rice.
Many people consider amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa to be cereal grains, but they are not. Instead, these are all broadleaf (dicot/eudicot) plants known as pseudocereals. Other seeds that are not grains include lentils, peas, and other legumes. And that “recreational/medicinal” grass? It’s not a member of this family either.
Grass family pests and diseases
Grains and grasses are prone to fungal diseases, such as leaf scald, leaf spot, net blotch, stripe rust, and stem rust. Along with grasshoppers and crickets, and other common pests, this family battles crane flies, stinkbugs, and wireworms. Also, aphids may carry a viral disease called barley yellow dwarf.
Your average lawn grass has a root system that only goes down a few inches. Other grass plants have roots that can go down 5-10’ or more. So, how about making a little room for a patch of grain? As a food crop, I expect that it will be much like endive, nasturtiums, lentils, and tomatoes—it will continue to turn up long after I have stopped planting it.
The grain and grass family provides 51% of all human dietary energy. How much space does it get in your garden?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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