Saturday, February 14, 2009

Simplifying California Native Bunchgrasses

It’s clear from the questions and orders we’ve been receiving that interest in California native bunchgrasses is at an all time high. And why not? They’re beautiful, drought-tolerant, important for wildlife, good forage, erosion resisting, and among other things, uniquely Californian. We’d like to answer some of the most frequently asked questions here.

  1. Yes, this is a good time to plant native grass seed in the ground. You may have to supplement with irrigation if the rains stop before the seeds have germinated and made good root growth.
  2. Which grasses should I plant? The wonderful thing about California is that we have so many different ecosystems; the challenging thing about California is that we have so many different ecosystems. It’s impossible for us to know definitively which particular bunchgrasses used to grow or may still grow at your particular site, but to make the best guesses possible, we recommend the following:

    • Bestcase scenario is to have bunchgrasses already on the site that you can augment through proper mowing or grazing techniques.
    • Next best is to have a nearby site with native bunchgrasses and similar elevation, aspect, and soils, that you can use as a model.
    • After that, go to sources such as our pamphlet Distribution of Native Grasses of California, by Alan Beetle, $7.50.
    • Also reference local floras of your area, available through the California Native Plant Society.
  3. The single greatest problem growing bunchgrasses is non-native invasive species, particularly alien grasses. Ways to knock them back are addressed in our “Notes on Natives” series, the pamphlets both on Wildflowers and on Grasses.
  4. Have realistic expectations. In hot sunny dry situations, most bunchgrass species will usually go at least partially dormant in the summer. Don’t expect a bright green lawn. Some species can maintain partial greenness with supplemental water. BUT remember, “Brown’s’s the New Green,” so relax and perceive the subtle beauty of these fascinating plants.
  5. For background on the ecology of native bunchgrasses, see our Notes on Native Grasses or the chapter “The Land Wore a Tufted Mantle” in Judith Lowry’s Gardening with a Wild Heart.

Container growing: We grow seedlings in pots throughout the season, but ideal planning for growing your own plants in pots is to sow six months before you want to put them in the ground. Though restorationists frequently use plugs and liners (long narrow containers), and they may be required for large areas, we prefer growing them the horticultural way: first in flats, then transplanting into 4" pots, and when they are sturdy little plants, into the ground. Our thinking is that since they are not tap-rooted but fibrous-rooted (one of their main advantages as far as deep erosion control is concerned) square 4" pots suit them, and so far our experiences have borne this out.

In future newsletters, we will be reporting on the experiences and opinions of Marin ranchers Peggy Rathmann and John Wick, who are working with UC Berkeley researcher Wendy Silver on a study of carbon sequestration and bunchgrasses. So far, it’s very promising. But more on that later. For now, I’ll end with a quote from Peggy, who grows, eats, nurtures, lives, and sleeps bunchgrasses, for the health of their land and the benefit of their cows.

“It takes a while. But it’s so worth it.”


Country Mouse said...

I have seedlings of local Nassella lepida, Foothill Needlegrass, grown from seed I that gathered last year. This is my first attempt at propagation, and they have proven to be easy starters. I'll follow your example and use 4" pots. Thanks for the timely info!

Anonymous said...

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Joan Stepsen
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