Monday, July 23, 2012

Bunches of Grasses Everywhere

Bunch Grasses
As time pants on to the end and crisis after crisis looms with regards to Green Energy, Clean Water, Science-Based Landscapes verses Nature Replicated Landscapes, people are turning their attentions now to alternative viewpoints they may have not considered before. Cultural differences and traditional conventional methods are being challenged by the alternatives. This isn't necessarily another going native pushing commentary, but getting a better understanding of some better possibilities could result in breathtaking outcomes.

Most long time USA residents out in the west had their ancestors bring with them their back east mentality of just what a traditional garden should look like. Before that I suppose the British brought over the English Garden favourites with European non-native influences. Much of the traditional Green Grass Lawn dogma had it's birth from the 1950s onwards. Many military personel after the war decided to stay instead of going back to harsh winter weather extremes. They appreciated all the long growing seasons of the west coast with it's easily planned weekend Bar-B-Qs and of course a good traditional lawn was all a part of that. Water didn't seem to be much of an issue back then, but it certainly is now. Without running the story into the ground, let's get into the meat and potatoes of advantages of a Bunch Grass landscape. First some mechanical issues.
Bunch Grass Bonanza by Joe Rocchio on Flicker
Bunchgrass Definition: 

The term "bunchgrass" refers to types of grasses that grow in tufts or bunches from a single root system. As the stems of bunch grasses grow up and outward from the narrow base, they form a sort of an "umbrella" appearance or in some cases as with single large specimen "bunch grasses", a fountain-like appearance, hence "Fountain Grass". This actually protects the base and root system from drying out due to hot sun and evaporation. As a side benefit, think also of those long stems as being a sort of funneling system to channel water to it's base and providing an immediate hydrating effect directly where the roots are located. It's because of these characteristics and the fact that they are normally so deeply rooted as compared to traditional lawn grasses, these bunch grasses are particularly well-adapted to the very dry conditions found in the valleys, mountains and plans of the Western region States. 
Notice the Chart below Root Systems:
While these are bunch grasses, many of these varieties listed would not necessarily be suited to a lawn replacement situation, but could be a specimen plant as I'll note later on. View the chart below as a mechanical understanding of how well suited they would be from a western landscape point of view.

Root Scale Depths are in Feet
At the very least out in the west, alternatives should be a must to the conventional traditional water loving lawns which contain a large variety of back eastern USA natives who have adapted to an entirely different environment than their western cousins. Interestingly, many of the varieties in those mixes as an individual will form a bunch grass clump. But there is more to a lawn alternative than just the conventional Bunch grass. What about Carex species (Sedges) which are native to moist area meadows in the higher country of the western states. Here's an example found at both Tree of Life Nursery and Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery
Mike Evans Explains Carex Praegracilis As Groundcover
Here is a reprinted experience example from the CalPoly San Luis Obispo Leaning Pine Arboretum which utilized the above Native Carex Praegracilis as a conventional lawn seed alternative or substitute.

California Native Carex Lawn (February 2006) The arboretum has a sizable new lawn planted entirely with Carex praegracilis, a California native known as dune sedge. The lawn area measures about 4,000 square feet and is in an area roughly between the Californian garden meadow and the Mediterranean garden. Dune sedge is not a true grass and is not normally planted for use as a lawn. It is used elsewhere in the arboretum’s Californian garden where it is managed and displayed un-mown, functioning as an ornamental grass-like plant growing about 12” to 15” tall with a graceful, floppy habit.

"Based in part from observations of a smaller, successful planting managed as a lawn, the arboretum decided to move ahead with this large scale planting. The lawn was planted using small starter plants, or plugs, grown from seeds collected in San Luis Obispo County. During establishment, the planting has been watered and fertilized regularly to speed plant growth. It is being mowed regularly and has nearly filled to form a solid carpet that seems very tolerant of regular foot traffic. Once fully established, we expect the dune sedge lawn will require less watering, mowing, fertilizing, and de-thatching than the conventional lawn it replaced."
"The new lawn is part of the arboretum’s efforts to evaluate and display landscape plants that are appropriate for the Central Coast area. Its management will also be consistent with the arboretum’s policy of using environmentally sustainable practices, such as feeding using only organic fertilizers and controlling weeds without the use of toxic herbicides."

On another note this same plant may be utilized in other settings.
Another example of a Meadow Setting
Much of my experience with these grasses doesn't come from actual use in urban landscape, but with wild restoration applications. The area north of Anza CA on the other side of Thomas Mountain is called Garner Valley and has one of the richest native grasslands loaded with a number of Carex species including the one listed above. The area in question is from Lake Hemet eastward and is south of Idyllwild CA. Here is an entire plant list for that Garner Valley.

Garner Valley California
This place always reminded me from the first time that I ever saw it as the location where the movie staring Alan Ladd called "Shane" with the Lake Hemet Market easily substituting for the movie's "Grafton's General Store" where Jack Palance was the Saloon's resident Gunslinger. But like Grafton's General Store, it's the only place around for miles anywhere to pick up supplies of any kind. The only other nearest supply depot would be Idyllwild to the north. Even Mountain Center Store I believe is something else now, like a Real Estate office I believe.

Garner Valley by Tom Morris

In the old days this stream through the center of the Valley ran all year. Not sure about now, but the massive fields of the dominant Carex species interspersed with other native bunch grasses is beautiful as water always seems never far from the surface here. Those lower foothills used to have forests on them. Early logging and a lack f replanting programs changed all that. We took my Great Uncle for a ride from San Diego up to my place and drove to Idyllwild for dinner. He was in his early 90s. The was in the late 1980s. He was an avid yet responsible Hunter and had been in this area hunting many decades previous. When he saw the lack of forests in the foothill background in the above photo and behind this Camera which is Thomas Mountain, tears came to his eyes as he wonder where all the forest went. Well, that's another story for later on.

Another Grass-like plant some what related to the Sedge habitat would be the Juncus (Rushes) which in reality often grow together in the same locations. These Rushes have the appearance of a stiff bunch grass which could be used in many of the same large ornamental grass setting, but with more moisture requirements like the Sedges. This plant has often been utilized in grey water filtration plant ponds for restoring and cleaning up a city's Sewage gray water. Here's an example of one called Juncus acutus at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, California.

Juncus acutus - photo Mike Evans
Change in direction now. I have used large Bunch Grasses as singular statement plants alone or in groupings. An example is the large Burgundy or Purple coloured Bunch Grass called

Fountain Grass - Red (Pennisetum setaceum)

I find maintenance on these grasses easy enough. You simply cut it back once a year, but not down to the ground as you would regular lawn grasses. I left it a foot and a half high from the ground. Cutting back hard could kill the grass.

This next ornamental grass I have really liked in the past, but it tended to get a bit weedy and out of control for me. It's called Mexican Stipa Grass or Feather Grass and looks great when planty of water is available, but when it gets loose and away from the water it will turn as dry as Foxtail annual grasses. In the fire prone areas I think it would make me a bit nervous, but still an attractive grass as the images bare out. The other nice thing was when the afternoon breezes would pick up on the grasses seed heads for which a feathering twitching in the wind look was common.

To sum things up, I don't think I'd make a giant lawn project of it. Maintenance would be an issue for me and I'm not exactly opposed to getting rid of all lawns either. I prefer narrow meandering strips of lawn as a pathway. I believe Lawns have a cooling effect on the environment around one's house and home and they keep the dust down from your porch and inside the house. A smaller lawn keeps water bills lower as well. Things planted near lawns or at the edge should be close to water loving. Think of lawns as a streamside habitat when planting and consider what plants would work along this course. Of course you can pretty much get away with doing anything on most small garden or urban landscape conditions since maintenance is usually like caring for something on life-support anyway. But learn the basics on how exactly nature works and replicate that to the extent possible.
As always use Mycorrhizal applications and dump the traditional science-based Corporate marketing junk which tempt one into believing it's the only way for greener landscape. Grasses have been around for countless thousands of years and have done superbly long before Miracle Grow said otherwise.

Enjoy your Bunch Grass Lawns. Below is a reference source for many native grasses at least from the Southwestern United States. The sight is owned by Jim Koweek former owner of Diamond JK Nursery in Sonoita Arizona. Jim has many years under his belt at habitat restoration and many of the educational tips & insights found on his sight are most beneficial. He also harvests various native grass seeds which may be found at several locations.

Native plants draw on moisture far below the surface, allowing them to survive harsh conditions.


  1. I've really gotten into native California grasses lately planted quite a few Deer grass Muhlenbergia rigens, some Elymus condensatus Canyon Prince, Festuca 'Siskiyou Blue, Carex praegracilis, and also some Nassella pulchra and Carex obispoensis that is native to yard. They really do add a nice balance and look great. I really do laugh at the dimwitted neighbors who have to water and mow their crappy looking lawns all the time.

    1. Yeah I agree, I'm not really into the big boring frontyard/backyard squared lawn concept. When I supervised the Landscape Maintenance with the Property Management Company I was with as head gardener, I hated the maintenance pain with lawns. I especially hated mowing especially when some client let their dog crap all over the place and you don't see or notice it untill the mower runs over and mulches it with everything else.

      The other problem I have with lawns is the fertilizing on a regular basis if you want the deep green look. If you look at nature where most grasses occur, they are in valley floors, flood plains, etc. All nutrients head there and grasses like lots of rich nutrients. That's why when you pick up lawn clippings and throw them in the dumpster, you are taking away the nutrients which in nature animals would have processed and put back into the fields. Over here in Sweden almost no one picks up lawn clippings. They use those mulching mowers and because of the constant wet and rich biological activity under the ground going on, the breakdown is rapid, where as in So-Cal clippings dry out quickly and just lay there. While there is so much talk these past decades on mulching, I wonder really how many folks don't do it because they feel it is a pain. If done properly and with earthworms, the fine material could quite easily be dispensed back into the lawn with a spreader set evenly.

      The other interesting thing they never do here is spray to kill broadleafed weeds as if they were a curse to a nice lawn. There are a number of clovers and other tiny wildflowers which actually look beautiful in the lawn setting. Maybe I should photograph some lawns and let folks see the effect. Dandelions come in the spring, but don't linger. Nobody here messes with them like they do here. One has to wonder how much of the hatred for these things has been marketed into the Psyche of potential customers of companies like Ortho, etc.


  2. I'm not one for lawns here. Tucson does better than Phoenix with this but both are learning to slowly cut back on the sizes of their lawns. In Phoenix, a lot of people have been converting that 1950's mentality of a must needed lawn and using the clumping grasses instead within a desert landscape. They do very well here but the only thing people have to be concerned about is during the dry weather and fire and proximity to the house. Otherwise there are some great options out there for these clumping varieties. My personal favorite is the Fountain grass. It does and can outgrow a space quickly:) Nice post...and so, what happened to the forest? Was it suburbs?

    1. Most of your lawns I would imagine are Burmuda Grass which has it's own set of challenges to keep it in check and away from other garden areas. I love desert plants and rock mulch. Rock mulch is easy to maintain with a good blower.

      I would also be spooked with some native bunch grasses which get dry and straw-like. It's a fire issue.

      The forests in Garner Valley I was refering to were originally logged off by a large Saw Mill operation in the the Valley in late 1800s and early 1900s. Most of the prize old growth Ponderosa and Jeffreys were taken. Then there were the stupid human caused fires. One giant fire happened at the eastern end of the Valley on the Santa Rosa Indian Reservation. It ate it's way west across the northern face of Thomas Mountain all the way to Lake Hemet. Mostly all around it was just plain human idocy.



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