The word “grass” often conjures images of unifrom, flat, green spaces providing lawnmowers with their raison d’etre, but there is a whole world of grasses out there! Our climate allows us to grow species from all over the world, but California offers many beautiful native grasses that serve multiple functions in the landscape.
Why plant grasses?
Besides the ecological benefits of erosion control and soil filtration, the gracefully shimmering foliage offers a beautiful sense of movement to the garden. Wildlife benefits immensely from grass: foliage acts as protective cover and nesting material, and seeds provide food for wildlife, whose activities entertain us in turn!
Know Your Grasses
There are three families that fall under the colloquial term “grass”: true grasses (poaceae spp), rushes (juncus spp), and sedges (carex spp). These grow either as dense clumps (bunch-type grasses) or spread horizontally via stolons and rhizomes. California’s native true grasses, such as the official state grass Nassella pulchra, tend to be more heat- and drought-tolerant than sedges and rushes.
How to use grasses
Lawns can be replaced by mass plantings of low-growing native grasses, which provide a more textured look that reduces irrigation and mowing needs. You can create a meadow by accenting with larger bunch grasses and colorful perennial and annual flowering plants. Suggestions for lawn substitutes can be found on the Theodore Payne website.
For more on meadows, see John Greenlee’s book, The American Meadow Garden.
Bunch-type grasses can be used as accents in meadows, as described above, or in mixed perennial beds. Broad-leaved plants like the contrast in color and texture offered by the fine foliage and panicles of grasses.
Using larger bunch-type grasses as a backdrop to a perennial bed is very effective, especially when the morning (or evening) light shines through the inflorescens. Smaller grasses can also form a border in the front of a planting bed, which is especialy helpful on slopes to prevent run-off.
How not to use grasses
Exotic grasses can be beautiful additions to your garden, but stay away from invasives. See the California Invasive Plant Council’s website and this blog on Mexican Feather and Chilean Needle grasses.
Grasses are considered either cool or warm-season, which determines when they put on the most growth and how best to coppice them. Cool-season grasses should only be cut down 1/3-1/4 of their original height, whereas warm-season grasses can be coppiced down to stubs. Leave the “chaff” on the ground as mulch or add to your compost pile.
Lawn-alternative grasses don’t need to be mowed every week, which reduces organic waste, labor, gasoline, fertilizer, and noise pollution. They can be mowed a few times throughout the growing season (or not at all) if desired. Meadows can be irrigated like lawns with spray-type emitters (but less frequently for low-water species).
Coppicing frequency and time of year depends upon the species (see page 7-8 of The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden Guidelines for Pruning). A good rule of thumb for time of year is after seed drop in late fall but before (or just as) spring growth appears. However, because lady beetles like to overwinter in dense clumps of grass, I suggest leaving the tufts until spring and letting these wonderful critters feast on those troublesome aphids (who wants to look at dormant, chopped, stubs of grass anyway?).