Orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) is a variety of bunch grass with deep roots and a somewhat variable appearance. Depending on the available soil moisture, it may be 18 to 48 inches tall, and its leaves may measure 3 to 17 inches long. The blades may be either flat or folded, while the spikelets can be either green or purple.
So how does one recognize orchard grass? There are a few characteristics that remain reliable regardless of growing conditions:
- The stems are upright, smooth, and hollow.
- The leaves are blue-green in color, tapering, and less than half an inch wide, with a conspicuous midvein on the underside.
- The leaf margins are fused together toward the base.
- The inflorescence has few major branches, and these spread stiffly.
- The oblong spikelets form one-sided clusters on short stalks and tend to be about a quarter of an inch long.
Orchard grass can be found from the Atlantic all the way to the eastern Great Plains, and even farther west where there is adequate rainfall (at least 11 inches annually). It occurs all across Kansas and can be found in nearly any type of habitat or soil.
The only conditions that orchard grass cannot adapt to are saline soils and high water tables. However, orchard grass is found in greatest profusion in areas with over 18 inches of annual precipitation, some shade, and fertile soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.5.
Orchard grass is a cool-season perennial. Its growth begins in the spring almost as soon as the daytime temperatures start to increase, and its growth becomes explosive soon afterward. It pauses to flower in May and June.
This species survives heat and drought well thanks to its deep root system. Its growth does not resume until fall when the days grow shorter. This fall growth period is the time of greatest tiller formation. The grass remains standing through the winter.
Orchard grass was introduced to North America from Britain in the 1700s for pasture and hay. It adapted quite well and is now noted for its ability to spread rapidly, as well as for its tendency to attract Japanese and June beetles, which eat the roots.
But orchard grass is not entirely bad. It provides shelter for nesting birds in the breeding season, and it also serves as a cover for many types of wildlife in the winter. When actively growing, it is a favorite forage for deer.
This species is a hardy, digestible, and very palatable forage for all types of livestock when in a vegetative stage of growth. However, when planted with other grass it has a tendency to take over the pasture. Therefore, it is best seeded with legumes, which can hold their own and will provide the nitrogen orchard grass needs to thrive. (It is a great addition to alfalfa stands grown for hay.) Orchard grass should be seeded in spring or late summer at a rate of about 2 to 5 pounds per acre with legumes, 8 to 12 pounds per acre when seeded alone. Do not graze or cut orchard grass until the fall of the second growing season so that it has a chance to become established.
From that point on, orchard grass can be grazed whenever it reaches a height between 6 and 10 inches, leaving a residual of 3 to 4 inches. (Allow it to mature and produce seed every few years, however.)
Orchard grass grown for hay should be harvested in the spring in the boot stage, the point at which the plant switches from leaf and stem growth to seed head production. Leave 4 to 5 inches of stubble behind. Let it rest 4 to 6 weeks before cutting again.
Also note that orchard grass is a good choice when planting for erosion control.
The primary disadvantage of orchard grass is that it is invasive and competitive. It will readily take over pastures, hay fields, and lawns. In lawns, it is particularly undesirable because of its light-colored tufts, which are not typically considered attractive.
Orchard grass pollen is known to cause hay fever.
The best way to remedy an orchard grass invasion is to prevent it in the first place. When seeding a pasture or hay field, use low rates of orchard grass and high rates of legume seeds to prevent the orchard grass from overrunning the place. When seeding lawns, look out for the “% other crop” in any seed mixes you purchase. Make sure that the number on the label never reads higher than 0.01%.
Established orchard grass is nearly impossible to eradicate. Hand-pulling is the most effective way to battle it in lawns. Beyond that, it can’t be conquered by much other than glyphosate.
Despite its variability, orchard grass is still fairly unique, particularly when in bloom. A familiarity with its idiosyncrasies should be all you need to identify it.
Parts of a Grass Plant: A Glossary
Definitions for technical terms used in this post.