The Grass Station

Up in Manitoba, Canada, where they care deeply about staying warm, they're experimenting with stoves that burn pellets of switch grass.
Published on February 13, 2006

THOSE of us who labor in the garden got an unexpected thrill listening to the State of the Union last week when President Bush touted a plant, switch grass to be exact, as a way to “make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.”

How pleasing to see official presidential recognition of the usefulness and worthiness of this common member (panicum virgatum) of the millet family. Previously insufficiently appreciated in our capital, switch grass is inexpensive food for cattle, horses, sheep and goats. This deep-rooted perennial controls erosion by slowing down water run off and keeping beneficial sediments in the field, and it is habitat for songbirds, game birds and waterfowl.

And yes, ethanol can be made from switch grass, which grows in abundance on the prairies of the Great Plains. If grass had ambition (besides wanting to propagate), the panicum virgatum might see itself as a cure for global warming and a savior of the family farm. If burning compressed switch grass really does work to reduce the use of fossil fuels, it would reduce the carbon we release into the air. Then farmers could find new profits in growing the stuff. And the more, the better. Switch grass, like every other plant, takes carbon dioxide out of the air and uses it to build plant tissue. Fold that, Republicans, into your Clear Skies legislation.

Switch grass cleans water as well as air; its wide-spreading roots filter out pesticides, herbicides and excess fertilizer before they reach the waterways. Up in Manitoba, Canada, where they care deeply about staying warm, they’re experimenting with stoves that burn pellets of switch grass.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, recently recommended switch grass as a balm for international tension. It’s likely we’ll find ourselves competing with China for oil, he told the Council on Foreign Relations, so we’ll need to look at other fuels. He suggested that tons of agricultural materials, like corn, sugar cane and switch grass, could be used “to create billions of barrels of new fuels.”

At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone say that switch grass is a cure for lower-back pain and nearsightedness.

Family farmers know that switch grass is easy to grow. It doesn’t complain about growing in sand; it doesn’t mind clay either. It’s tolerant of floods as well as of droughts. It would work as part of the effort to restore the Louisiana wetlands that can help protect New Orleans from hurricanes.

Switch grass is native to most of North America, from Canada to Texas. The day after the State of the Union, the president joked that he might bring in a few extra dollars at his Crawford ranch by growing switch grass for fuel. Whoa, Mr. President, take a look next time you’re trimming the brush: odds are you have plenty.

Let’s not forget that switch grass is beautiful and looks great in floral arrangements. On the very same day the president spoke, I got the latest Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbook, “Designing Borders for Sun and Shade,” in the mail. The handbook strongly recommended switch grass as part of a perennial border. There’s “Dallas Blues,” “Alamo,” and the prettiest, wine-red “Shenandoah.” The handbook suggests combining switch grass with asters, sunflowers and black-eyed Susans for an all-native garden with a nice prairie feel.

To me, though this may seem at first unrelated, this is just one more reason that “America the Beautiful” should be our national anthem instead of that song with the bombs bursting in air. The clue to achieving clean fuel, clean air, clean water, world peace has been right there all the time in those “amber waves of grain.”

Constance Casey, a former New York City Parks Department gardener, writes about gardening for Slate.

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