Native Grasses Info

THE BASICS

Increasingly more gardeners, landscape architects and reclamation officials are discovering the inherent beauty and amazing utility of our native and wild grasses. The more ornamental varieties can be treated like perennial wildflowers and by keeping in mind varying heights, texture and colors, results can be spectacular! Taller grasses are being used as borders along walkways, as dividers and backgrounds or as accents in flower gardens.

Wild, sod-forming grasses are increasingly valuable as low-maintenance, drought-tolerant substitutes for the traditional lawn. They offer the option of remaining unmowed to create natural looking "meadow" transitions between manicured lawns and untouched surroundings.

A number of grasses are preferred for erosion control because of their massive root systems and ability to survive the harsh extremes of western weather. Our research shows that laying a base with the proper grass is the easiest and least expensive method to control weeds and set the stage fogr a natural succession which evolves to include shrubs and flowers.

We have learned much in the last twenty-five years from approximately 400 projects involving the planting of grasses. We find that understanding some basic concepts and definitions before planting native and wild grasses is the best way to insure success. Simply click on grasses in bold if you would like to purchase any. If not available through Seeds Trust or for more support, Contact Us.

DEFINITIONS

Bunch Grass: 
Grows to form separate, independent clumps when left unattended in the wild. Bunches can be planted so closely together as to create tightly knit sod as in the case of hard or sheep fescue. Usually this requires supplemental water and occasional fertilizer.

Cold-Season: 
Green and growing during the cool parts of the growing season, spring and fall; dormant and dry during the hottest part of the summer. If watered and occasionally fertilized, cold-season grasses will remain green during the entire growing season. Their roots, however, stop growing during the hot summer. Fertilizer is best applied in the fall or early spring to take advantage of the times when the roots are active and growing.

Culm: 
The stem of grasses, sedges and rushes which supports the flowering parts of the plant.

Introduced: 
Those grasses previously brought from other continents, many of which are now naturalized in their "adopted" environment. Some are so common and widespread that they are mistaken as native as in the case of Kentucky bluegrass.

Native: 
Those grasses native to North America.

Rhizome: 
Horizontal stems growing mostly beneath the ground which can form new plants complete with roots.

Sod Grass: 
Grasses which spread to form a carpet-like turf.

Panicle: 
Main stem and branches containing the flowering parts (spikelets) of a grass plant.

Sedge: 
Grasslike plant often found in, but not limited to, wetland areas. Distinguished from grass most often by flowers, triangular leaves and culms. In fact, an old jingle, "sedges have edges", is true most of the time.

Stolon: 
A trailing shoot growing above the ground which forms at each node new plants complete with roots.

Warm-Season: 
Green and growing during the hottest part of the year; dormant and dry when cold in the spring, fall and winter. Usually recommended for the more southern latitudes where mid-summer temperatures make green lawns difficult. Warm-season grasses must be planted at least 2 months before first frost if they are going to survive winter.

AVAILABILITY

A wide range of native and wild grasses in all categories are now being sold by a growing number of seed companies. However, certain individual species have never been brought into commercial production and supplies are dependent upon seed gathered in the wild. Some commercial varieties are being produced by only one or two organizations and are often in short supply. Before deciding upon a specific list of grasses for your project, check for seed availability. Our experience tells us that availability is still one of the major factors determining the choice of grasses for many projects.

COST

Cost is often a determining factor in the choice of grass seeds. Cost limits for a project should be set before grass species are chosen. Once overall cost limits are set, planners can be flexible within the limits by choosing grasses that are more expensive or less expensive within each use category required. Idaho fescue, for example, can be replaced by one of the less expensive sheep fescues in many large, reclamation projects.

HEIGHT

Many new gardeners and landscapers are confused about the mature height of unmowed grasses. This is especially true for home landscapers who want a short, meadow look surrounding their property. Two different parts of a grass plant determine its height.

Depending upon which part is measured, different heights can be observed. Except for a short period during mid or late summer when flowers appear, the visible height of many grasses is determined by its leaves. The height of grasses as listed in most planting manuals and catalogs is based on the entire plant which includes the flowering parts, the culms and the panicles.

For example, the height of the leaves of sheep fescue and Canadian bluegrass seldom reaches above 6 or 8 inches. Once a year, the culms and panicles for both can grow 12 -18" tall, the commonly listed height. Landscapers who understand this distinction, can use many more varieties where short grasses are required if cutting the culms once a year when “mature” is recommended.

The height of grasses is also determined by the fertility of the soil. Limit the height of grassy meadows by restricting fertilizer and water.

WEED CONTROL

Weeds should be "managed" rather than "eradicated". Before rushing out to destroy every weed in sight, remember that they can help prevent erosion and help keep soil moist. Certain weeds provide habitat for beneficial insects.

Minimize weeds by minimizing or preventing soil disturbance. Anytime soil is opened, tilled or turned it becomes vulnerable to invasion from new plants. Plants most often to appear first are what botanists call "pioneers". Unfortunately, most of the rest of us know them as the most troublesome weeds including thistle, mustard and mullein. We have successfully created grassy meadows out of scrubby sagebrush without disturbing the soil. The entire area was mowed to a height of 6". This killed the sagebrush which was easily removed over the years and allowed the wild grasses to dominate.

Rushing to plant grass seeds in the spring before weeds emerge is not always a successful strategy. If weed seed is in the soil (some varieties can be dormant for up to seven years), weeds can successfully out-compete new, young grasses. However, densely planted, established grasses will help prevent the germination of new weed seeds.

Ideally, weeds should be controlled before grasses are planted. We suggest when planting a newly disturbed area, wait until the first crop of weeds has come up and been removed before sowing wildflower seeds. In some cases, we have seen a second and even a third crop of weeds that needed to be removed.

Although many chemical herbicides are on the market to control broad leaf weeds in established grasses, we do not recommend the use of chemicals. We have been successful in our efforts to control weeds by simply mowing young stands to a height of 6" or less. We have found that most native and wild grasses out-compete most weeds when mowed this short. One or two mowings for the first year or two is enough to purify most stands if done before weeds flower and go to seed.

SOIL

Most grasses survive in marginal soil with low-nitrogen content. Performance for most grasses is best in well-drained, composted, soils. Simply put, the better the soil, the better the stand of grass.

At high altitudes, soils reach their extremes and are inherently more fragile, more alkaline or more acidic and more deprived of organic matter than soil in more moderate climes. Top-soil is often non-existent, or subject to rapid degradation by being exposed to severe wind and intense sun. We encourage gardeners to build up and care for soil by adding organic matter, by adding nutrients, by testing soil pH and by minimizing tillage.

WATER

As water resources become more scarce, wild grasses are destined to become more prevalent. Unless specifically adapted to wetland areas, most of the native and wild grasses that commonly populate the wild lands throughout the West are very drought-tolerant.

However, when planting grass seed, soil must be kept moist 3-4 weeks while germination takes place. Seeds must be kept moist during the fragile stage when they swell with water until the time when new little roots have grown deep enough to find soil moisture. Important: do NOT let the seeds dry out! This may require watering 2 to 4 times each day. Sunny, hot, windy days and sandy soil conditions may require a short watering, as often as every hour. (Note: Most automatic sprinkler systems can be adjusted to this demand.) Many landscape professionals recommend spring or fall planting when temperatures are cooler and grass seed is less likely to dry out between waterings.

PLANTING

Divide the area to be planted into a number of equal areas. (We draw lines in the soil with sticks.) Divide the seeds equally and place in separate bags. Using one bag for each area will prevent under-seeding some areas or over-seeding and running out before every area is planted. Lightly rake seeds so they are covered with approximately 1/2" of soil; or mulch with straw or compost. Note: we have seen no distinct advantage in germination using expensive hydro seeding techniques in areas that can be watered.

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES

Incorporating grasses into formal yards and gardens is gaining popularity. Despite being among the most resilient, drought-tolerant and carefree plants in the West, many native and wild grasses are especially beautiful. They offer a wide range of colors, textures and heights to enhance most landscape schemes.

We are most proud of gardens arranged according to water needs as well as ascetics. This has decreased maintenance as well as water usage. Our next trick is to treat grasses as we would flowers in an English cottage garden. Some are planted individually for contrast. Others are colonized to provide background texture. Great basin wildrye adds bright green to terra-cotta pots and Indian ricegrass is as pretty as any baby's breath. Grass seed available from Seeds Trust are bolded. Our favorite ornamental grasses:

SHOWY BLOND PANICLES

Cereal Rye
Crested Wheatgrass
Siberian Wheatgrass

REDDISH COLORED GRASSES

Redtop
Smooth Brome

BLUISH COLORED GRASSES

Blue Fescue
Blue Wildrye
Streambank Wheatgrass

LANDSCAPE GRASSES

Use of native and wild grass in home landscapes has grown tremendously in the last few years, especially in areas where water has been in short supply. Drought- tolerant grasses not only survive water shortages, once established, many flourish and remain very beautiful during periods of little or no water.

Also, ideas about home landscapes have changed as environmental awareness becomes more popular. Many families want a more "natural-looking" landscape as well as one easier on the planet's resources. Short, drought-tolerant, meadow-forming grasses like Canadian bluegrass and sheep fescue have become favorites for new construction projects and remodels as well. Modern life-styles demand resilience and low maintenance. Grasses offer both.

Some families dispense with the traditional lawn altogether in favor of a meadow-look with flowers. Both Canadian bluegrass and sheep fescue are flexible in that they can be mowed into lawns if needed. Our favorite home, landscape grasses are as follows:

DROUGHT-TOLERANT SOD FORMING GRASSES

Canadian Bluegrass
Creeping Red Fescue (shade tolerant)
Streambank Wheatgrass

DROUGHT-TOLERANT BUNCH GRASSES

Sheep Fescue
Hard Fescue
Canby Bluegrass
Sandberg Bluegrass
Siberian Wheatgrass

RECLAMATION GRASSES

Cost and availability are the most important factors governing the choice of grasses for large reclamation projects. Adaptability to specific environments, root growth for erosion control and ease to establish are other major factors considered. More and more wild grasses are being brought into commercial production which assures availability and lowers costs. Plan ahead and contract a year in advance if you want to assure availability and low cost. Some of the more popular reclamation grasses because of low cost and widespread availability are:

QUICK-GROWING EROSION CONTROL

Annual Rye Grass
Perennial Rye Grass
Blue Wildrye

SALT AND ALKALAI TOLERANT

Tall Wheatgrass
Great Basin Wildrye
Nuttal Alkaligrass

DROUGHT TOLERANT EROSION CONTROL

Sheep Fescue
Canadian Bluegrass
Crested Wheatgrass
Streambank Wheatgrass