California native bunchgrasses can be beautiful and dramatic additions to your garden. These perennial grasses send extensive fibrous root systems into the soil, helping them survive our dry summers, control erosion on slopes, and sequester carbon deep in the soil. Our native grasses also provide important habitat for wildlife by providing cover and food for birds and small mammals, and some native grass species are host (food) plants for butterfly larvae. In the natural landscape, native bunchgrasses pair with native flowering plants, both annual and perennial, and that combination can be used to great effect in a native garden as well.
In your garden, native bunchgrasses can be focal points of interest and play a role in your garden’s ecosystem. Determining which native bunchgrasses may be appropriate for your garden can be a bit overwhelming. We are lucky to have several native plant nurseries in our area that can help you determine which grasses will fit your garden needs. The Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour website has a list of native plant nurseries in the greater Bay Area (and a bit beyond).
Cool Season vs. Warm Season Grasses
Cool season grasses start fresh growth with fall rains and remain green and growing during our rainy, cool winter months. In spring or early summer they flower, and a little later in the summer they set seed and go partially or fully dormant, turning a beautiful golden or tawny color and showing off their dried flower stalks. However, some summer-dormant grasses, especially those from coastal plant communities with mild summers and winters, will remain green longer with supplemental water during the summer.
Warm season grasses are mostly dormant through the winter. Much of their vegetative growth happens in the summer, when they are green, and they flower in mid- to late summer. These grasses are mostly from interior areas of California as well as the deserts, and they do best with some summer heat. Warm season grasses seldom actively grow in the winter regardless of where they are grown or how they are watered.
Bunchgrasses for the East Bay
The East Bay has a wide variety of climates, from foggy El Cerrito to hot Orinda and Livermore. Here are some grasses that will do well in the right setting in many local climates. We have also noted those that are available at our chapter’s Native Here Nursery.
Foothill needlegrass (Stipa lepida, formerly named Nassella lepida)
This is a delicate cool season perennial bunchgrass, somewhat smaller than our state grass, purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra), and therefore probably more appropriate in a garden setting. Foothill neeedlegrass grows one to three feet tall and two and a half to three feet wide, although some have commented that in their gardens the spread is only one foot. Foothill needlegrass tolerates sun or shade but is typically found in partly shaded areas, and the combined tolerance to shade and drought makes it good for growing under oaks.
Available at Native Here Nursery.
California fescue (Festuca californica)
This cool season perennial bunchgrass grows one and a half to four feet tall and stays green (or blue-green) through the summer. California fescue can be planted in full or partial shade and is drought tolerant, though it looks better with some summer water, especially in hot areas. This native bunchgrass makes a handsome border to a meadow or lawn replacement area.
Available at Native Here Nursery.
Red fescue (Festuca rubra)
Nominated as “Most Comfortable Grass” by Judith Lowry in her article “Return of the Prairie: Native Grasses for the Gardener,” this cool season grass is frequently used as a lawn replacement, as it can spread into a mat through rhizomes. Red fescue grows one to three feet tall, is easy to grow and not fussy about soil, will handle full or partial sun, and is drought tolerant but can take some summer water to prolong its green color.
Available at Native Here Nursery.
Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
This large, warm season grass grows quickly to form a dense three- to four-foot mound. Its profuse flower stalks can add another two feet to its height and are spectacular when backlit in a massed planting. Deergrass is one of the easiest native grasses to grow and can be planted in full sun to light shade, in moist or dry conditions, and in most soil types. Its extensive root system controls erosion on slopes, and it offers food for songbirds as well as larvae of a number of butterfly species.
Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa)
This cool season grass forms a fine-textured deep-green mound up to 18 inches tall, and three or more feet tall with flower stalks. It can be grown in full sun to light shade and requires some summer water. This is a lovely grass to use with wildflowers or perennials and shrubs and is especially beautiful when massed.
Leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa)
This beautiful blue-gray cool season grass forms a 12- to 18-inch arching mound topped by very attractive tawny feather-like flowers. Native to north coast areas, leafy reed grass needs good drainage, some shade, and regular summer water away from the coast. Though it’s considered short lived, raking it to remove old thatch or dividing it and replanting in late winter or early spring can keep it looking good longer. Don’t cut this one back—it won’t respond well.
California melic grass (Melica californica)
This bright green cool season grass forms dense clumps about one foot tall through underground rhizomes. California melic’s showy flower spikes add an additional two to four feet to the plant’s size and look just as good dry as fresh. It is tolerant of many soil types but does need good drainage. Drought tolerant in shade, California melic benefits from a little water in the sun. In either setting, it will tend to go dormant without summer water, but the flower spikes will still be attractive. Can be mowed in the fall.
Alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides)
Although less well known, this warm season grass is beautiful, easy, tough, and available in nurseries. Alkali sacaton forms a dense green or gray-green clump up to three feet tall and wide. Flowers are airy and pink and produce abundant seeds for birds but do not tend to reseed in gardens. It tolerates many soil types, and its name refers to its ability to thrive in alkaline soils. Though it is drought tolerant, it looks greenest with some summer water, especially in drier inland sites.
There are several native grasses that can work as substitutes for the usual non-native grasses used for lawns. The advantage of using native grasses is they require less water, have deep roots that sequester carbon, and can provide habitat for native wildlife, none of which traditional lawn grasses do. Some grasses that can be used for lawn substitutes include:
- Red fescue (Festuca rubra ‘Molate’)—this cultivar from Richmond’s Point Molate does best in full sun near the coast and part shade in hot areas.
- California oatgrass (Danthonia californica)—grows in sun to very light shade with little summer water once it is established, but it will be greener with a little summer water.
When to Plant
If you want to start native bunchgrasses from seeds, Judith Lowry of Larner Seeds in Bolinas recommends starting in regular four-inch pots and then transplanting into your garden in fall, winter, or early spring, when it is still cool and rainy. If you have container plants from local nurseries, then fall or early winter is the recommended time to plant. It is important to water newly planted grasses during the dry season (or seasons) for at least the first year to help them become established.
With our warming climate and increased fire awareness, many are concerned about dry vegetation in the summer and fall, which can be the state of summer-dormant native grasses. Most native bunchgrasses can be cut down to just a few inches in their non-growing dormant season, which should pass muster with most local fire departments (check with yours to be sure). Also, “raking” or “combing” bunchgrasses with a long- or short-handled claw-like cultivator to remove the dead material (thatch) can renew their growth and make them more fire safe, something that happens in natural grass stands with fire and grazing. Some summer-dormant grasses can also be kept green longer with supplemental water, such as a deep soaking about once a month. Native plant nurseries should be able to recommend appropriate selections and their care based on your particular needs for fire-safe species.
- “A Wind-blown Garden on a Sea Ranch Bluff“ by Russell A. Beatty, article from Pacific Horticulture magazine showing many interesting native grasses in the garden, including California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) and Molate fescue (Festuca rubra ‘Molate Blue’).
- Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour list of native plant nurseries.
- California Native Grasslands Association: This nonprofit’s mission is to promote, preserve, and restore the diversity of California’s native grasses and grassland ecosystems through education, advocacy, research, and stewardship. Their web page “Landscaping with Nature” has many interesting articles about native landscaping, including fire-wise strategies.
- California Native Bunchgrasses by Rob Moore, article from California Native Plant Society.
- California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien; out of print but available from used book sellers.
- Larner Seeds has a wide variety of native grass seed local to Northern California.
- Native Here Nursery has a good selection of native grasses local to the East Bay.
- Return of the Prairie: Native Grasses for the Gardener by Judith Lowry (Larner Seeds).
- Simplifying California Native Bunchgrasses by Judith Lowry (Larner Seeds).
- Wild Lilies, Irises, and Grasses: Gardening with California Monocots by Nora Harlow and Kirstin Jakob, editors; excellent reference for native grasses with lots of photos and drawings; out of print but available from used book sellers.
— Robin Mitchell, Recording Secretary, CNPS East Bay Chapter