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Add Flair to your Garden with Southwest Bunchgrasses

By Kirti Mathura | Photography from Garrett Cook

Adding texture and charm to a desert landscape can be challenging, especially if you also desire a low-maintenance yard. For an appealing accent, why not try one or more of the perennial bunchgrasses that are native to our Southwest region?

Unlike Bermuda grass, these drought-tolerant ornamental grasses do not require weekly mowing, installation of elaborate sprinkler systems or frequent fertilizer applications, and you don’t need to be on constant watch for pesky weeds or diseases.

Bunchgrasses offer wonderful contrast to leafy shrubs and flowering perennials with their fluid form. Their texture also provides a soft counterpart to bold, rigid-looking cacti and succulents. Graceful movement and soft rustling add a dynamic dimension to a garden setting as desert breezes pass through. When located where early morning or late afternoon sun backlights the plants, ripening seed heads will glisten and gleam.

Dense fibrous root systems make bunchgrasses ideal for planting on slopes to stabilize soil and prevent erosion. While the plants’ leaf blades provide resting habitat for wildlife, especially birds, the blades and seeds also serve as food sources for rabbits and other critters. 

Most of these grasses have an upright fountainlike form and range in size from about 1 to 5 feet in height and spread. Best of all, there’s a perfect grass for every type of space. If you want the look of a lawn, for instance, small, dense blue grama presents an effect similar to turf grass (but slightly taller) and requires only infrequent watering and monthly cutting back with shears or a mower to about 4 to 8 inches. Taller-growing deer grass adds drama to a yard, especially when grouped en masse. 

When planting bunchgrasses, choose a location with full sun or filtered sun exposure and well-drained soil. Most bunchgrasses will survive in temperatures as low as 0 degrees.

Easy, Breezy Grasses

Purple threeawn (Aristida purpurea)

Besides their look, one of the best reasons to incorporate any of these plants is that they require very little maintenance. At the time of planting, add a small amount of compost to the backfill soil; however, don’t overdo it. The compost benefits the grasses since natural grassland habitats accumulate a bit more organic matter than what we find in our desert soils. Annually, spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost over the root zone area of each plant. A springtime application of a mild organic fertilizer provides sufficient nutrients without promoting excessive growth.

Most perennial bunchgrasses go dormant and die back during the winter months. Late winter or early spring (January or February in the low desert) is the ideal time to cut them back in preparation for renewed spring growth.

And it’s best to scalp them. Trim as low to the ground as possible. Emerging leaf blades won’t have to struggle through dense old growth, and you’ll be treated to vibrant new plants for the season. Reseeding is not generally a concern unless excessive moisture surrounds plants. Water grasses about once a week through summer.

Try a bunch or two of these seasonally bedazzling, low-maintenance plants, and you’ll be able to spend less time taking care of your garden and more time enjoying it.

BUNCH GRASSES

Small:

  • Purple threeawn
    (Aristida purpurea)
    2′ H by 1.5-2′ W
  • Blue grama
    (Bouteloua gracilis)
    1.5′-2′ H by 1.5′-2’W
  • Purple muhly
    (Muhlenbergia rigida)
    2’H by 2’W

Medium:

  • Sideoats grama
    (Bouteloua curtipendula)
    2′-3′ H by 2′-3′ W
  • Blonde Ambition blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’)
    2.5′-3’H by 2.5′-3’W
  • Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
    3’H by 3’W
  • Bull grass (Muhlenbergia emersleyi)
    2′-3’H by 2′-3’W

Large:

  • Bamboo muhly
    (Muhlenbergia dumosa)
    3′-5’H by 3′-5’W
  • Big muhly
    (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri)
    4′-5’H by 4′-5’W
  • Deer grass
    (Muhlenbergia rigens)
    4′-5’H by 4′-5’W

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