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Why grow native grasses?

Why grow native grasses? Establishing native perennial bunch grasses is a lot of work. But some people find the rewards well worth the effort.

One compensation is simply the satisfaction of creating a natural environment and, in the process, helping to preserve some increasingly rare plant species.

Wildflower lovers have an additional incentive: bunch grasses coexist beautifully with wildflowers. This is in contrast to the now omnipresent annual European grasses, such as wild oats, which tend to overwhelm them in one season.

Other gardeners, including hikers and artists, grow them simply for the subtle beauty of their tufted texture and mingled hues of gray, green, and rust.

Some native bunch grasses appear

to be significantly less flammable

If you live in the hills, the most compelling reason to grow perennial bunch grasses may be that they seem far less flammable than the annual species covering California's untamed hillsides.

Bunch grasses stay green naturally about six weeks longer than annuals, and green up faster after fall rains; give them a minimal amount of water and they may stay at least partially green all year, especially near the coast. Many of the perennials have a growth habit that makes them tough to ignite: the plants form tight tufts, whereas annuals are loose and airy.

To test flammability, Sunset set up a fire-safe site last June and used a propane torch to ignite several clumps each of two native perennial bunch grasses and two common annual weed grasses--wild oats and wild barley. All of the clumps were dug up the same day from the same unwatered area.

The dry oats and barley torched almost instantly and disappeared into ashes. But big, partly green clumps of the two natives--purple needlegrass and narrowleafed brome--never ignited fully. Despite a thick layer of dry thatch around the base and repeated relighting with the propane torch, flames only flickered briefly and then sputtered out. The grass was left virtually intact, as you can see from the pictures at far right.

Obviously, this test doesn't predict the impact of a wildfire raging through a rural neighborhood; and not all bunch grasses are likely to be equally flame retardant. Still, a group of plants that tend to snuff out flames rather than spreading them deserves further investigation.

If you would like to try these natives, starting seeds now should give you plants big enough to put into the ground by winter; November is usually optimum. Seed sources follow; a few specialists in native seeds or plants will grow the plants on contract.

Two good choices; more are available

Specialty seed companies offer six of more kinds of native perennial bunch grasses--each adapted to different areas. The two we tested grow naturally in summer-dry areas of California.

Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) forms dense, fine-textured tufts about 8 inches tall and in time equally wide (airy seed heads reach knee height). Once one of the most widespread native grasses, it grew in the Central Valley, the nearby foothills, and along the coast from Humboldt County south to Baja.

Narrow-leafed brome (Bromus breviaristatus) is taller to 1-1/2 feet with seed stalks), coarser, and faster. It forms some of the large tufts in and along the dry stream shown on page 190. It can take more traffic than needlegrass; you can even mow it as a rough lawn (but the more you mow, the more you need to water). It's native to the dry hills of California, Nevada, eastern Washington, and Wyoming, among other places.

You'll find descriptions of more choices in the seed catalogs.

Start them in containers

Since seeds are collected by hand, the supply is limited and the price too high to waste them by broadcasting. More important, perennial grasses need a head start before they can compete with faster-growing annual species. Also, if you scatter the seeds over weedy soil, you'll find it almost impossible to distinguish between the grasses you want and the weeds.

For faster, uniform germination of Stipa, mix seeds with a small amount of barely damp potting soil, put in a plastic bag, and refrigerate for two weeks. Bromes don't seem to need this pretreatment.

Then sow in containers, 1/4 inch deep in weed-free potting soil. Keep moist in partial shade. Protect hairless young seedlings (including Stipa) from snails and slugs; they don't seem to bother the hairy bromes. When seedlings get crowded, transplant them into 4-inch pots.

By November, plants should form a tuft sturdy enough to transplant into the ground. Space 1 foot apart for solid coverage, 2 feet apart to cover a larger space (fill gaps with wildflowers or mulch).

Before planting, remove weeds. You can pull or hoe them, spray with glyphosate (follow directions), or sterilize soil with clear plastic (see the July 1987 Sunset, page 152D). If you can, alternately water and then kill new weeds two or three times before planting, then mulch bare soil 2 to 3 inches deep.

Later, pull weeds by hand--or cut them to 6 inches with a string trimmer just before seeds form in spring. You can dab persistent kinds, such as thistle, with glyphosate.

Avoid fertilizing. It encourages annual weeds, increases fire hazard, and discourages wildflowers. If soil is exceptionally poor, use low nitrogen fertilizer, and do it in late spring after annuals begin to dry, or early in fall, before annuals sprout.

Keep roots moist the first winter. After that, some gardeners supplement moisture only in winter and spring of dry years; others routinely water until hot weather to keep plants green longer. By the third year, plants should be able to compete against most annual weeds on their own. Plants can live 100 years.

A seed packet ($1 to $2.50) usually sows one or two flats, 25 to 50 plants.

Where to buy seeds: Johnson Seeds, Box 543, Woodacre, Calif. 94973 (price list $1); Larner Seeds, Box 407, Bolinas, Calif. 94924 ($1); Redwood City Seed Co., Box 361, Redwood City, Calif. 94064 (offers seeds, plants, and a $1 price list mapping the grasses' natural range within California); Plants of the Southwest, 1812 Second St., Santa Fe 87501 ($1.50; has tougher choices for inland heat).
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jul 1, 1988
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