Return of the Prairie: Native Grasses for the Gardener

Posted by Judith Lowry on

"Grasslands are not a drive-by landscape. Unless you get out in them and observe, you will never understand how diverse they are, and how much is going on."

-Newsletter of California Native Grass Association. 

Here at Larner Seeds, we've long (35 years) been interested in California's perennial native bunchgrasses - for their beauty and  for their importance as part of a threatened ecosystem.

There are many reasons to be intrigued by native bunchgrasses, and the gardener's experiences with them can be enhanced by a general understanding of their place in the California landscape.

Once you tune in to the visual rhythm of bunchgrasses, they can be readily spotted from a distance.

The excitement of finding them will enhance your hikes, and a great way to gain familiarity with them is.....TO GROW THEM.

Research in the past decades confirms the important role that these long-lived species, with their deep fibrous root systems, have played in California's rangeland ecosystems.  We offer more information on other grass species and on the ecology of grasslands on our website. 

 One rarely mentioned advantage of walking through native grasses is that most native bunchgrasses (except for the needle grasses)  don't embed painful seeds in your socks!     

A Native Grass for Every Garden
Good for the grazers, and for the gardener too.

An all too rare native grass prairie growing in serpentine near Nicasio Ridge. Native fescues hold the rocky hillside, their visual rhythm one that, once your eye tunes into it, seems right for California.

We offer a wide variety of grasses, suitable for many purposes. You can incorporate either single plants or groupings of bunchgrasses into your garden design, or try your hand at a prairie restoration project, one which includes bunchgrasses, annual and perennial wildflowers, and native bulbs, a "mini-prairie".  Let's have more mini-prairies! 
To help you gain familiarity with native grasses useful for the gardener,  here are some species to consider, our own picks for:

"Grasses of the Month"
Most Comfortable Grass:  
Red fescue, Festuca rubra


Larner Seeds Employee Jeff Manson succumbs to the allure of  the Red fescue meadow in the Demonstration Garden. Photo taken in July by T. Kochan, no irrigation needed  on the coast. 

Preferred for naps by both humans and dogs, this grass species' flowing, relaxed leaf-blades reliably reveal the direction the wind blows, and few can resist a liedown in its soft green, pillowy masses. In windless, sunny areas, its habit is more upright.
This grass is the most frequently used for those seeking lawn replacements from the native grass palette. It can handle some summer water if you want to prolong its green color, and new plantings establish well from seed. 
As well as being a bunchgrass, it spreads through rhizomes, making it useful as a lawn substitute.
Sturdiest Grass of the Month:  Pacific reedgrass, Calamagrostis nutkaensis
Size matters when it comes to keeping weeds out of a native bunchgrass garden. If you want a meadow that requires little weeding, emulate the reedgrass meadows at North Beach in Pt.Reyes Seashore or in Salt Point State Park. Few weeds can out-compete the massive clumps of this hardy grass, growing 3-5 ft tall and equally wide. Here we sometimes find quail nests.

We cut it back every two or three years and rake it with a leaf rake in between to remove dead blades, a good plan for most native grasses. 
Most Poetic Grass:California oatgrass, Danthonia californica
This grass was the basis of many a central to northern California grassland before the advent of livestock and European grazing practices. There are still many inspiring examples to be found, if the landowners recognize what they have. CA oatgrass is low-growing and likes full sun. 
"Grassland researcher Jeff Wilcox saw a single plant of Danthonia californica, California oatgrass, in a museum exhibit:  "The roots were over six feet long. I was stunned by all we cannot see, and by what goes on underground.' "  Grasslands, newsletter of California Native Grass Association, Fall, 2015
Though a rather modest-looking, low-growing bunchgrass, its persistence and the presence of fertile seeds at the bases of its seed stalks, (a phenomenon called cleistogamy), and its refusal to disappear inspired me to write a poem in the style of early California poet Ina Coolbrith.

"Danthonia, Danthonia,
How fair thou art to me
Thy obscure crossing blades
The orange disease that sometimes
Colors thy stems.
Thy subtle beauty.... & etc. etc.
This ode goes on for a while, ending: 
"Again, Danthonia, may you hold
Your one-time domain by the sea,
The fields, the hills, the river's edge,
Held sway by thy cleistogamy."

Easiest to Grow Uncommon Grass:
California bottlebrush grass, Elymus californica

The graceful drooping flower-stalk of this bunchgrass with its large seeds makes it easy to imagine using these seeds for food, as California's indigenous people did (as well as using those of many other species). At 4 to 5' tall, it is one of the tallest (though slender) of native grasses. Bottlebrush grass thrives in openings in redwoods or in mixed evergreen forests.
It is easy to grow, given part-shade, and spreads on its own.   

Most fragrant: Vanilla grass, or, California sweetgrass, Anthoxanthum occidentale.
This lovely grass is one of the most tolerant to shade and is particularly adaptable to shady spots under oaks and in among coastal shrubland plants like salal and huckleberry. 
It remains green into the summer, with subtly attractive and fragrant flowers. Indeed, the whole plant is fragrant, even more so when dried. Its fresh, vanilla perfume is enticing. 
Plants are 2-3' wide and equally tall, and can be grown in groupings of 3 or more or used as accents. Fountainlike form, deep green color, wide blades.  

Neatest Planting pattern in the Wild: California Fescue, Festuca californica   
Many notice the striking, staggered patterns of this bunchgrass growing in the wild. It is notable on Panoramic Hwy going over Mt. Tam, where it is hard to believe the individual specimens haven't been planted. Use the same triangular pattern when planting this species at your place, rather than broadcast sowing in the ground.

Growing to 3' tall, with fountainlike habit, they thrive in part-shade, or in full sun along the coast. With their size and habit, they do a great job of withstanding weeds. Interplant with irises. 

Most Frequently Changed Botanical Name: 
Purple needlegrass, Stipa pulchra. 
First, it was Stipa pulchra. Then it was 
Nassella pulchra. Now, once again, it is Stipa pulchra.
Regardless, the needlegrasses have many fine qualities. One is their grace.(see video). Another is the depth of their rootsystems, in one example growing 15 feet into the soil.
Vigorous, hardy, and widespread, it is considered by some to be the state grass of California.The stipas are host plants for the California ringlet butterfly.    
They are also Best at Waving in the Wind:

There is a lot to learn about our prairies. Many thanks to Kathleen Kraft for showing us Sonoma State University's valuable resource on coastal prairie:  For more information on understanding and growing native grasses, see below. Also, join the California Native Grass Association.

Original post by Jeff Manson: December 17, 2016

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