Gardening Etcetera: Learn about native grasses that may be foreign to you – Arizona Daily Sun

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Gardening Etcetera: Learn about native grasses that may be foreign to you

Here's an example of blue grama grass at the base of the San Francisco Peaks.

AMELIA BLAKE

AMELIA BLAKE
I know what you are thinking, what about grasses?These humble organisms of the Poaceae family may be the most underappreciated in the whole plant kingdom. From providing forage for early ruminant animals feeding the first nomadic tribes to containing 10 of the 15 staple crops that allowed for the development of the first agricultural civilizations, grasses have shaped the history of our species and the world. So, while a few ornamental grasses are a nice addition to your landscape, there is an even larger diversity of beautiful, native grasses you may not know.In our arid climate, water conservation is big on many people’s minds. And though most grasses are water hogs, natives such as Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Arizona Fescue (Festuca arizonica), and Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) can have a water saving effect on your land. Native grasses provide a natural mulch to exposed soils, helping to slow water flow and allowing it to soak in while creating a barrier to evaporation. They also decelerate the winds moving over the soil surface, reducing water loss during our intense spring season. Large bunch grasses such as Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) can even act as windbreaks. And though native grasses may not create a classic lawn, during periods of drought, they are able to go dormant until moisture returns.If you have ever witnessed one of our monsoon downpours, it is easy to see the benefit of native grasses to our soil. A single rain can potentially wash away precious topsoil. These grasses hold soils in place between other landscape plants when traditional gravel and bark mulch can wash away. They also prevent nutrients, especially nitrogen, from volatilizing out of exposed soils. The roots of the grass loosen and aerate mineral-dense soils, add organic material, and encourage healthy, soil ecology. These healthier soils are then capable of sequestering greater amounts of carbon.Lastly, adding native grasses to your landscape is beneficial to our local ecosystem and especially our wildlife neighbors. Grasses provide food and nesting material to birds, habitat for beneficial insects, and create symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizae and plants. In areas that are disturbed or where invasive plants have taken hold, native grasses are some of the few plants able to outcompete these species and return the area to a more balanced and diverse system. If you have been battling weedy plants in vain with weed cloth, herbicides, and hand pulling, consider covering the area with a dense mat of wild Arizona meadow grasses.Though there is an endless list of reasons to invite our native grasses to grow in your yard, there is finally the practical question of how to go about changing your landscaping. First, it would be wise to find out which native grasses do well in your area. If you are anywhere on the Colorado Plateau, Blue Grama is a good choice. It is easy to grow, widely available, reasonably inexpensive, and beautiful. Consider mixing in cool season grasses with wildflowers. You can call up a local nursery or search online for a quality seed source. Some nurseries will carry container grasses or plugs if you are lucky. These require less frequent watering for the busy gardener. Monsoon season is the best time to sow seeds. You will likely need to add compost to your soil and loosen the ground before seeding. Straw or pine needle mulch will help to keep the seedlings moist as they grow.Your first-season investment in good supplemental watering will pay itself back for many years to come, since seedlings need to stay wet for several months to properly establish a good root system. If you are encouraging grasses to spread, be sure to give them time to flower and seed before mowing or allowing livestock and pets to walk on them frequently. Above all else, remember it is okay to start small with a handful of seeds or a couple of plants. Investing too much in a new project can be discouraging if you run into problems.Amelia Blake was born and raised in Flagstaff, Az. She attended the University of Arizona where she graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s in Plant Sciences. She now owns Lily of the Field, a small local nursery specializing in native, heirloom, and arid-adapted plants for the Flagstaff area.

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Here's an example of blue grama grass at the base of the San Francisco Peaks.

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