Try tall, architectural types in low-maintenance borders, medium-sized types for lawns and mass plantings, or choose low-growing sedges if you’re looking for an easy-care ground cover. Native grasses also provide significant benefits to wildlife and the environment, providing cover for small mammals and insects and hosting dozens of caterpillars, while sequestering carbon in their roots.
Native grasses make ideal additions to a prairie planting scheme and are effective drought-tolerant planting ideas. It’s especially popular in drought-prone states like California, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico, where the cost of maintaining a water-intensive lawn is skyrocketing — some local water agencies even offer incentives to encourage it. People are replacing their lawns with more sustainable plants and features.
Elsewhere, in cold regions, indigenous populations have adapted to survive freezing winter temperatures and hot, dry summers with little maintenance or irrigation once established.
7 of the best native herbs for different climates
To inspire you, we asked two experts for their recommendations on native herbs suitable for opposite sides of the country.
Mark Richardson, director of horticulture at the New England Botanic Garden, offers suggestions for areas with long, cold winters, while Kathy Crane, garden designer and owner of California’s oldest native plant retail nursery, Yerba Buena Nursery, lists her favorites for warm, dry areas. Climate plural.
Mark Richardson is director of horticulture at the New England Botanical Garden on Tower Hill in Boylston, Massachusetts. He oversees the organisation’s Living Group, which includes 17 gardens, indoor conservatories, planting areas and surrounding woodlands.
Kathy Crane is a garden designer and owner of California’s oldest native plant retail nursery, Yerba Buena Nursery. The nursery grows, designs and sells native California plants for home gardens.
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
Best for: Shady ground cover
US Department of Agriculture Hardiness zones: 3-8
“If you’re looking for a ground cover that will work in place of grass in a dry, shady location, there’s no better choice than Pennsylvania sedge,” says Mark Richardson. “It grows to about 12 inches (30 cm) and can be cut back once or twice a year after the plants become established and will look to most people like grass, without the need for irrigation, fertilizers or pesticides. This sedge does best in shade, and can tolerate average soil.” To dry.
Kathy Crane also uses sedges in her California designs. Her favorites include field sedge (Carex praegracilis) and shorter sand dunes )Carex pansa), both of which are evergreen natives with spring flowers that make a lovely ground cover, although you can’t walk on them like you would on grass. These are hardy in zones 6-10.
better for: A decorative rug for full sun
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-8
For ground cover in sunny areas, Mark suggests deciduous prairie seeds (Sporopulus heterolipis), a beautiful, clumping and relatively short grass, grows to about 12 inches (30 cm) in height, with longer, airy flower heads in summer. Prairie Dropseed plants are available for purchase at Nature Hills.
The leaves are bright green then turn yellow to orange in the fall and brown during the winter. “This beautiful grass doesn’t need a lot of moisture once established and thrives in well-drained soil, while tolerating lower winter temperatures.” He says.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
better for:Planting meadows
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4-10
If you’re planning a meadow scheme, look no further than a few blue trees (Schizacherium scoparium). “This is my first choice for a dry, sunny area,” says Mark. “It’s a medium-sized, warm-season native grass that reaches about 2 feet (60 cm) in height and stays upright, where a lot of other meadow grasses flop over as the season progresses.
“It’s a beautiful green, with hints of blue, in the summer, and then in the fall it turns purple to silver and then light brown,” he continues. “The little blue plant also looks great in mixed perennial borders, where its upright habit and colorful display pairs well with late perennials and deciduous foliage.”
Young bluestem plants are available for purchase from Nature Hills.
Northern sea oat (Chasmanthium latifolium)
better for: the shadow
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-8
Few plants thrive in the dry soil under trees, but the native northern sea oat (Chasmanthium latifolium) available from Nature Hills are an exception, producing elegant masses of bright green leaves and decorative seed heads in these shady situations. The foliage grows to about 2 feet (60 cm), while unusual flat seed heads dance on long, thin, arching stems from late summer.
Mark recommends cutting off the seed heads to use in dried flower arrangements before self-sowing if you want to keep an eye on this herb. “Although they are beautiful, they can spread greatly when planted en masse,” he adds.
Leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa)
better forMixing and matching in boundaries
USDA Hardiness Zones: 8a – 10a
“This showy grass is a wonderful addition to mixed borders and I love growing it alongside drought-loving perennials here in Northern California,” says Kathy Crane. “It can be found growing wild on cliffs and cliffs in coastal brush and in the forests of California’s northern coast, and it does equally well in gardens here.
“The gray-green foliage contrasts beautifully with the horizontal cream-colored flowers, which look like tiny paintbrushes when they appear in summer.” Kathy recommends giving this grass a well-drained location for best results and watering it by hand once a month to keep it fresh.
California fescue (Festuca california)
better for: Adding color to drought gardens
USDA Hardiness Zones: 7a to 10b
There are a few fescues that are adapted to the dry climate of California and other Western states, but among the most popular is this hardy, medium-sized native. It reaches about 24 inches (60 cm) in height, and produces mounds of gray-blue foliage that turns orange over time. “They thrive in almost any location and soil, from steep banks to flat, clay-rich areas and full sun to partial shade,” Kathy says.
“The deep roots make it a great choice for reducing soil erosion as well. I use it as a feature plant and love the way it sways when a gentle breeze touches the leaves. I also like to grow it under oak trees, where the low light highlights its beautiful leaves and flowers,” she adds. It is drought tolerant, but can still look lush with occasional water.”
Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
Best for: Cultivate a tall tone
USDA Hardiness Zones: 6 to 10
Native to the West, this large, adaptable grass is a great choice for a focal point or to cover a slope or bank. “Deer grass grows to about 3 feet (90 cm) tall and has a wonderful architectural presence. Its green leaves turn yellowish-brown in summer, when the graceful, narrow flower stalks appear,” says Cathy.
“I use it in my designs as a base plant. Its tough nature makes it perfect for front yard sidewalk edging, where even domestic dogs won’t do any damage marking their territory,” she adds.
Do native grasses do well in borders?
Yes, native grasses are very versatile and can work in many backyard styles. Tall, airy varieties add height and movement to borders, while smaller sedges are a good addition to any gravel garden ideas.
If you like the ideas of adding more natural planting to your garden, you may want to incorporate native grasses into your prairie planting scheme. Or consider adding ornamental grasses to a patch of native wildflower meadow to complement the light, airy flowers.