Overlooked and Underappreciated

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Native Bunch Grasses Throughout the Year in Your Garden

They do not have showy, fragrant flowers. There is no twisted, smooth, rich bark. The foliage does not turn bright red before falling. Yet California’s native bunch grasses make exceptionally beautiful garden plants.

Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)

From Wild Suburbia

Bunch grasses are underutilized in our landscapes, possibly because their assets are subtle. I have made them a unifying element in my native, parkway garden. Groups of three large bunch grasses are repeated periodically in the long, narrow strip (70 feet by 6 feet). I have placed sages and other perennials, and an abundance of annual wildflowers within this framework. In March and April the bunch grass, mostly deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), recedes into the background as wildflowers burst into riotous bloom. The rest of the year the grasses hold sway.

Seasonality of Grasses
It is important to take into account seasonal growth patterns when selecting and maintaining grasses. Grasses can be categorized as warm or cool season growers. I enjoy incorporating both types so that something is actively growing at nearly all times of the year. When dormant, the grasses are allowed to stand – tawny and rigid, swaying in the wind. To tidy up a garden space, I may cut back the grasses, but I do this right before they are about to enter their growth period. Warm season grasses are pruned in late spring, cool season in late fall. This limits the length of time during which they have that unappealing shorn look.

Spring and Summer
Deergrass and alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides) are large, warm season grasses. When the wildflowers die back in May these grasses put on new, lush green blades, followed by lovely flowering stems. The deergrass has long, linear inflorescences that extend beyond the blades to about four feet. Alkali sacaton is more open and delicate. Both remain green through much of the summer.

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)

From Wild Suburbia

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) grows during the hot, dry summer. It forms small, fine-bladed clumps with inflorescences that resemble eyelashes. It can be mowed to about two inches, and is sometimes used as a lawn with the southwestern native, buffalo grass. It is an excellent bunch grass for small garden spaces in hot, dry areas.

Following many months of heat and drought, fall and early winter is the time of year that few plants, including the grasses, are particularly lush. Although I find the tawny color of the grasses during this period of dormancy comforting, the year around performance of purple three-awn (Aristida purpurea) provides a nice contrast. This intermediate-sized grass defies the seasons by maintaining green foliage and flowering nearly all year. Its flowers have long, showy purple awns. It and the needle grasses do “seed around” in the garden, but their attractiveness makes them worth the work of weeding out their unwanted seedlings.

Purple and foothill needle grass (Nassella pulchra and N. cernua) are smaller bunch grasses that fall into the cool season category. After the winter rains arrive, these grasses green up and develop needle-like inflorescences that shimmer in the sunlight. In my mind, nothing beats the look of needle grass growing among large boulders and rocks.

Fescues, such as California fescue (Festuca californica) and blue bunchgrass (F. idahoensis), are stiffer, smallish cool-season grasses. Some selections have an appealing blue color. For inland gardens, these grasses do better with some afternoon shade, though as with most grasses, they are tolerant of a large range of soils and conditions.

Never Use an Invasive Exotic Grass in Your Garden
Exotic grasses have been popular garden choices for many years. Unfortunately, some are highly invasive, such as fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum), and pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana and C. jubata). Never introduce an invasive plant into your garden; rather, choose from the many wonderful and diverse native alternatives. Keeping in mind their seasonal growth patterns, these plants will look lovely all year as they wave in the California breeze. Check out the California Native Grass Association website (http://www.cnga.orga) for more information on native grasses and on where to see native grasslands.

Dried arrangement of alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides), deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and common yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

From Wild Suburbia