Also called holygrass or bisongrass, sweetgrass is a native prairie grass prized for its fresh scent. It grows naturally in meadows and along stream banks. Native American tribes have long used sweetgrass for making smudge sticks as well as for weaving baskets. The plant spreads up to 2 feet wide annually, so plant it where it can be confined. It eventually forms a thick mat of foliage that tends to flop over unless cut back.
Light: Part sun, Sun
Type: Herb, Perennial
Height: 1 to 3 feet
Width: 12-24 inches wide
Seasonal features: Summer bloom
Problem solvers: Groundcover
Special features: Good for containers, Low maintenance
Initial Stages of Planting
Sweetgrass is “rhizomatous”, meaning is spreads by sending out horizontal, root-like stems called rhizomes. Rhizomes are basically underground shoots; they grow horizontally through the soil a short distance from the parent plant before sprouting up to the soil surface to begin growing as another plant. In fact, a single sweetgrass plug (a stem or two with a few inches of frizzy rhizome) can spread to cover a square foot of ground in a single year. Because most sweetgrass seed is infertile it should be planted from root plugs. Plugs grow best when they are started in wide, shallow plastic pots and covered in potting soil. Keep the pots in a shaded area for a few weeks until new roots have developed. Once the plants have filled out the pots, they should be transplanted into the garden with about 30 cm (1 ft.) of space between each plant. Plant sweetgrass in rich, moist, slightly sandy soil, with full exposure to the sun.
Watering should be done thoroughly, keeping plants constantly moist but not overwhelmingly wet. Never let the soil surface dry out completely, as drought is the major cause of death of a sweetgrass patch. The leaves will curl when the soil is getting excessively dry, and can revive with a thorough watering.
Fertilizer is needed 2-3 times during the growing season. Make sure to use a balanced fertilizer. If you use chemical fertilizer, a lawn-starter fertilizer is best, but chemical fertilizers, in general, are not recommended as they can burn the plants and are bad for the environment. Instead, use 2 kg/5 lbs each of blood meal and bone meal per 9.3 m2/100 ft2, and then periodically add 2.3 kg/5 lbs of the mineral Potassium Sulphate. Even when adequately fertilized, the plants will have a yellow-green look, which is normal.
When harvesting your sweetgrass plants, it is best to cut them, rather than pulling them up by the roots, so as to leave a short portion of the stem above the ground. You may use scissors to do so.
If you do not want to cut the grass, you may pull the stems out of the base sheath without causing damage to the roots. To do this, support the base of the plant with one hand while pulling the longer blades out of the basal sheath. This will allow the plants to re-grow quickly, and it is then possible to get a second harvest before autumn. It is even possible to achieve three cuttings a year from an established plant: early June, early August and October, just before the plants become dormant. If you do pull out some roots, do not worry. Simply cut the roots off and replant them soon after (see previous section). During the summer, sweetgrass grows nearly 2.5 cm/1 in. per day.
Braiding and Drying
Braid the sweetgrass as soon after harvesting as possible. Each plant will most likely include three to four blades of grass. Split the plants into individual blades. Clean all the blades by removing any roots that may have been pulled out. Again, save these roots and replant them as soon as possible.
Next, line up all the blades so that all the ends are reasonably well-aligned. Grab a bunch of grass in your hand and secure using a strip of red cloth, or any other means that you desire. The amount of sweetgrass in each bunch will depend on personal size preference. If you have waited a day or even a few hours, the grass may have slightly dried out, leaving it stiff and hard to braid. In this case, dip the tied bunches of sweetgrass into a bucket of warm water for a few minutes to soften the grass blades. This will allow the grass to be more malleable and easier to work with.
To braid the sweetgrass, you may wish to work with a partner. One person should hold the tied end of the sweetgrass bunch while the other person braids.
Once you have finished making braids from all of your sweetgrass, it is necessary to let them dry. You may place them outside in the sun on a dry surface. If this is not possible, you may tie all braids onto a long piece of string, with about 30 cm/1 ft space between each braid. Tie the string along the ceiling and leave it there until it is dry.