Monday, March 19, 2012

Throwing Needles - well needle grasses - at the Garden.

A couple years ago I had the idea it would be fun to create a "river of grass" flowing down the chaparral slope to the road below, using a needlegrass. But nary a river nor even a trickle was to be. Maybe the topsoil layer there was too thin, or the slope too exposed and difficult to irrigate. This year I'm trying to grow needlegrasses in other locations, to learn where it is happy.

I have learned since trying the river of grass that two kinds of needlegrasses grow wild here: nodding needlegrass, Stipa cernua, and foothill needlegrass, Stipa lepida.

The needlegrasses were until recently known as part of the Nassella genus. The Latin name nassa means "wicker basket" or "net" But now Jepson has lumped them back into Stipa, whence they emerged some years back. Stipa is from the Greek for fibre.

I like the look of  nodding needlegrass a little better because it has longer awns - awns being the long "needles" on the seeds that give needlegrasses their name. So pretty how it catches the light.



 Foothill needlegrass awns are about an inch to an inch and a half and don't weigh the panicle down.





And maybe foothill needlegrass can take more shade and is more adaptable. I see it for sale more, and I think I've seen more of it on our property. There is some on all the east and south east slopes where there is a additional shade from nearby trees at some time of the day, but some hours of mid-morning through early afternoon sunlight.



Las Pilitas Nursery has a useful page on Stipa cernua (and a very similar one on S. lepida)  There I read this tip:
I think in many of their habitats they regenerate only when there are ideal conditions that may occur only every 60-130 years. The Stipas occur throughout California in many plant communities. They do not form large solid stands except in 20-50 ft. clumps near seeps, but in most areas they stand as locus individuals.

For the bunch grasses to be stable long-term plant the Stipas at 3 ft. intervals with at least some of the wildflowers from the native community between the Stipa. If you can plant a perennial for every 5-10 Stipas all should be happy. If you want to plant an oak woodland with Stipas, plant them in the open areas between the evergreen oaks, and under the deciduous oaks.
So maybe one reason my river of grasses failed was the lack of  interplanted perennials?

To avoid confusion as much as anything, I've focused this year on growing  just the noddling needlegrass. Overall, both these grasses behave and look quite similar to each other, with nodding needlegrass preferring more sun.

Both germinate very readily. This year I have about six flats of seedlings to dispose of! On the native plant network, I read some quite complex propagation protocols involving stratification and so on - but I haven't had to do anything other than stick em in liners and water and wait a few weeks.


Both  are cool season grasses, so I sow in early fall, for bloom time around March and April, and on into early summer. When it's hot they do tend to dry out till the rains return. I think I'll try giving some of my test plants summer water to see if they stay a little greener.




This month, with all the lovely rain we've been having, I've been basically throwing needlegrass at the garden to see where it will stick, like a horticultural Jackson Pollock. It's fun to experiment, and see for myself what conditions they thrive in.

I've put some at the top of the north garden slope, in a fairly shady area. I've put it outside the greenhouse in full sun, between some deergrass I've got growing there (and late daffodils I planted just today!),



and in the bed opposite, near a coffeeberry that gives it a little shade, and in the succulent bed, next to the house.

I also tucked a few among the rocks on hummingbird hill, a south east facing slope that gets some shade from a nearby oak in front, and from my dad's cottage above. Also I'm scooping out little holes in containers and tucking some in along with monkeyflower and other things.

Basically, wherever there is a place a grass might go. And I'm not done yet. It will be nice if it grows on slopes, because it has deep and fibrous roots, good for erosion control.

I'm also saving some to share with friends, and I'm donating a flat of them to the Santa Cruz CNPS plant sale, April 21. But I'll be planting more out next weekend to be sure.

Rabbits have munched quite a few of them down to about two inches. But the ones protected behind rabbit fences are doing fine.

The native purple chalice clarkia, Clarkia purpurea, is another local native I've started a lot of and am also popping them in the ground here there and everywhere. I'm hoping it will like to grow among the needlegrass - that would be pretty.
When I was looking for some ethnobotanical info, the only info I found was on the site of the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, in Hawaii. I find it ironic that our native needlegrass has been introduced as an exotic in Hawaii:
Stipa cernua, an introduced grass native to California, can be found growing around the Visitor Information Station (VIS) on Mauna Kea. Stipa cernua is a very drought tolerant grass, used by some landscapers on the Mainland in xeriscape installations. It is said that Native Americans in California used to burn Stipa cernua in the mountains to facilitate its regrowth of tender young shoots which they then harvested and ate.
I'm sure somewhere on my property, nodding needlegrass will take hold and live for its reputed 100 year lifespan (so I read somewhere). And then I will know something, and I'll be very happy -- and I'll turn my attention to learning where foothill needlegrass likes to dwell.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Your Jacson Pollock tecnique sounds fun! I wish you luck.