En Español

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?


Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Thursday - August 04, 2011

From: Houston, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Container Gardens, Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Native grasses for wood planter box in Houston
Answered by: Nan Hampton


Hi, I'm making a long wood planter box/bench for my wood deck. The area gets direct sun only in the late afternoon/evening and the deck serves as a play space for our one-year old son. I'd like to plant some Texas native tall grasses, preferably of the very low maintenance/low water consumption variety, with the key being that they can't be dangerous in any way for our son. Also, since they'll be in a shallow planter, I'll have to find species that don't need a lot of soil to thrive. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks in advance!


Your idea sounds great, but there may be a couple of problems.  First of all, how shallow is the planter box?  Tall grasses are going to need more than 6 to 8 inches of soil to grow in—something that allows around a foot of soil would be best.  Their fibrous roots can spread sideways but they also need enough soil to allow the root surfaces to be able to absorb moisture and nutrients.  The second problem is that very few grasses grow well in the shade.  There are a few that grow well in partial shade (2 to 6 hours of sun per day) and I will recommend a few of these that grow between 3 and 6 feet tall.  The good news is that you don't need to worry about toxicity with native grasses and we can avoid any with sharp leaves.  You should read one of our How to Aricles,  Container Gardening with Native Plants, that will give you good general tips about creating a container garden.

All of the grasses listed are perennials.   In the winter they will turn brown.  Some of them are attractive with their golden or brown foliage and they resprout from the roots in the spring.  You can cut the old brown foliage before or after the resprouting in the spring.

Chasmanthium latifolium (Inland sea oats) grows to 4 feet high and prefers shade.  It may require slightly more water than the other grasses listed below, but will do fine is moderately dry soil.

Sorghastrum nutans (Indiangrass) can grow as tall as 8 feet.

Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass) grows to 6 feet.

Setaria scheelei (Southwestern bristlegrass) can grow to 4 feet tall.

Here are two other suggestions that aren't grasses but of the same general size.  One of their advantages is that they are both evergreen.  Neither is toxic.

Nolina texana (Texas sacahuista) is not a true grass but a member of the Lily Family. It grows to about 3 feet high.

Sabal minor (Dwarf palmetto) is a small palm that grows 3 to 6 feet high and is evergreen.


From the Image Gallery

Inland sea oats
Chasmanthium latifolium

Sorghastrum nutans

Panicum virgatum

Southwestern bristlegrass
Setaria scheelei

Texas sacahuista
Nolina texana

Dwarf palmetto
Sabal minor

More Container Gardens Questions

Growing Texas wildflowers indoors for a March wedding from Austin
October 01, 2013 - I have learned so much from this site! Thank you! I am getting Married this March and I am hoping to use Texas wildflowers for the centerpieces. I hope to grow them in containers indoors and have the ...
view the full question and answer

Native plant for container on deck in Oak Grove VA
April 05, 2011 - What VA native plant can I grow in a container on my deck that will block the view from the neighbor's deck? I am thinking columnar. This is in full sun and gets hot winds off of a bay. The plant ...
view the full question and answer

Native plants for a lizard terrarium
October 24, 2006 - My brother is setting up a terrarium for his lizard and wants advice on some species to put in the tank. He wants plants that generally fit the below description. Can you think of anything fairly c...
view the full question and answer

Screening Planter Recommendations for Lakeway TX
May 16, 2012 - I live in Lakeway in a townhome. The parking lot is directly in front of my unit so I always see headlights and cars. The HOA has agreed to build a planter about 4 feet high to help hide the cars. W...
view the full question and answer

Regulations for transporting plants to Texas from Florida
July 29, 2008 - We are relocating to TX from FL, I have a collection of potted palm trees and quite a few potted tropical plants (none are invasive)that I would like to bring with us, we will be traveling by car and ...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.
© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center