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Favorite Grasses for the Native Garden

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By Mary Anderson Master Gardener

When John Muir took his famous amble through the Central Valley en route to Yosemite, he saw a very different landscape. His “bee pastures” were endless undulating expanses of blooming annuals interspersed with hardy perennials and anchored by native bunchgrasses. When we plan our native gardens and landscapes, we should remember to include some of these wonderful grasses.

Perennial grasses are long-lived and deeply rooted plants, virtually pest free and very low on Bambi´s preference list. They require little maintenance, often just a combing out of dead matter, or even easier, a pruning to simulate the cleaning they would receive from a fire. Although the list of native grasses is long, my preference for use in the garden will focus on just a few. These favorites are hardy, well-mannered, and not highly invasive.

The Pacific Reed Grass, Calamagrostis nutkaensis, is a large bunchgrass with broad leaves of bright green, and flowering culms to about three feet. I´ve seen it in the wild along the coastal bluffs, where is constantly bends and nods in the sea breezes. It is appreciative of summer water and afternoon shade in our foothill gardens, and makes a bold statement among perennials like Achillea, erigeron, blue flax and penstemon in a meadow garden. A coastal companion is also the California poppy. With good drainage and some summer water, it is almost evergreen. However, grown in drier conditions it turns the soft gold of oat straw by fall.

Deer grass, or Muhlenbergia rigens, is suited to drier sites, happy in full sun or light shade. It forms a three-foot clump of fine dull green leaves, with narrow flower spikes another two feet above this. Deer grass tolerates light water if the soil drains well, but can be naturalized to do without any supplemental irrigation. I prefer this grass among medium-sized or low shrubs—ceanothus, Arctostaphylos, or the large perennial salvias. Maintenance is just a shearing before new growth begins, about February in my garden. I was surprised this winter to find the clumps sheltering hoards of ladybugs!

Another versatile bunchgrass is our California State Grass, Nasella pulchra or purple needle grass. This medium-sized grass is very drought tolerant, naturalizing well in full sun or dry shade. In the native plant section of the U.C. Davis Arboretum, it is featured spilling down a slope in the shade under a live oak, presenting a lovely loose fall of foliage. I have it on a bank where it thrives in full sun. I only wish that the poppies I try to naturalize on that bank would also thrive as well, making a great interplanting. The flower spikes are so beautiful I pick them for airy bouquets with blue dicks and St. Ithuriel´s spear, two early brodiaeas. This grass reseeds well. A few mother plants can reseed an area quickly, especially if the annual invasive grasses are controlled by being pulled out before they go to seed.

While we keep stressing that most California natives—perennials, shrubs and grasses—need well-drained soil to survive, there is always the exception. Rushes are evergreen bunch grasses that thrive in moist habitats. In the garden, they are upright, elegant, and beautiful when sited among rocks, low growing perennials, or even in a container. They are medium height, from 18 to 24 inches, with colors ranging from olive to gray-blue. Their flowers are subtle, borne near the ends of the stems. Some are a deep brown to almost black, and quite an interesting accent. My favorite native is one called Juncus patens ‘Elk blue.´ I snip out old foliage for their first year or two, then cut the clump all the way back when it begins to look tired, to force fresh new growth. This plant tends to reseed lightly, but the new clumps are easy to pull if they plant themselves where they are not wanted.

The spring sale of our local California Native Plant Society is on Saturday, April 15, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the WestAmerica Bank parking lot on Highway 108 in East Sonora. Come meet these grasses and many other plants that will do well in your foothill gardens. Also, there is a new poster featuring native grasses to help you identify what you see in the wild.

See you at the CNPS plant sale and in the garden.

Mary Anderson, Calaveras County Master Gardener and owner of Lost Hills Nursery, has spent the last 25 years getting to know California native plants on her 10-acre property and propagates many native plants from the seeds of her ‘mother plants´. As one of the original members of the Sierra Foothills Chapter of the California Native Plant Society she shares her wonderful knowledge of native plants at the twice-yearly Native Plant Sale. Come meet Mary on Saturday April 15th and let her inspire you to plant natives in your garden.

Tuolumne County Master Gardeners would like to thank all who visited our booth at the Home & Garden Show. Jackie Souza and Steve Salnick won bat boxes, Zana Vaccarezza won an owl box, Donald Machin won a basket of gardening “goodies” and Carly Lucas guessed how many poppy seeds in the jar, winning a basket of poppies and other plants.