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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: If You Must Have Grass, Why Not Have Native Grass?

By Susan Lewitt, for Let’s Talk Plants! August 2023.

Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Preserve meadow. Photo by Susan Lewitt.

If You Must Have Grass, Why Not Have Native Grass?

American homeowners have had a love affair with lawns for a long time. I’m not sure why. The original purpose of lawns was to have a small area for grazing domesticated animals. Most homeowners don’t graze animals on their lawns and the chemicals used to keep them ’pretty’ might harm the livestock.

Did I mention that lawns also are a huge chunk of a homeowner’s water bill? And the drought is not over yet. One rainy season does not end a drought and even if the drought were over, only 1% of all the water on the planet is potable. An average 50’ by 100’ lawn uses about 3,115 gallons of water each time you quench its thirst. That’s a lot of water to keep them consistently looking green.

To save water, many turn to artificial turf because it doesn’t need watering or maintenance. Right? Think again. To keep it looking good, regular rinsing is required to remove pet waste, odors, and stains. If trees are nearby, be sure to have a rake or vacuum handy to remove leaf litter.

Does anyone have a rake or a vacuum? Artificial grass is subject to the same leafy fallout as living grass. Photo by Susan Lewitt.

Studies have shown artificial turf is hotter than asphalt and can raise the summer temperature in your home by about 10°.

Weed growing in artificial grass. Photo by Susan Lewitt.

And about being weed free? Even the most carefully installed artificial grass won’t be able to prevent weeds from finding a home.

The good news: there are seventy-eight native grass species that grow in San Diego, some of which might be mowed like your current lawn, but an unmown native meadow is much better at supporting San Diego’s biodiversity. Among those, there are twelve easy to grow native grasses and because of their deep roots, they require less water and little to no fertilizer. Three work well as lawn substitutes. These native lawn substitutes include, Clustered Field Sedge, Carex praegracilis, Canyon Prince Wild Rye, Elymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince', and Thingrass, Agrostis pallens.

Clustered Field Sedge. Photos courtesy of Calscape.

Clustered Field Sedge greens up nicely in full sun with a once-a-month summer watering. Whether the drainage is slow, medium, or fast, this grass tolerates many different soil types with sufficient moisture. It is also deer resistant. It may be planted alone or with plants that do well in a moist or semi-moist area. Those possible companion plants including Marsh Elder, Iva hayesiana, Alkali Heath, Frankenia salina, Scarlet Monkeyflower, Erythranthe cardinalis, Scarlet Lobelia, Lobelia cardinalis, Yerba Santa, Anemopsis californica, Blue-eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium bellum, Marsh Fleabane, Pluchea odorata, Iris sp., Dwarf Juniper, Juniperus communis, Deer Grass, Muhlenbergia sp., Strawberry, Fragraria sp., and Rushes, Juncus sp. When allowed to bloom at its full height of two to three and a half feet, it supports up to ten different butterflies and moths including the Umber Skipper, the Common Ringlet, and the Dun Skipper. For more information on Clustered Field Sedge and how to convert your lawn to native grasses, please see “GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Native Lawn Time” by Clayton Tschudy, August 2020.

Canyon Prince Wild Rye, Elymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince', is a hardy blue-green grass cultivar that if not mowed will grow to about three feet tall and attract the White-lined Sphinx. It requires low moisture and does well in a wide variety of soils with slow to fast drainage. This deer resistant grass is good for butterfly gardens. It goes well with California Encelia, Encelia californica, California Sagebrush, Artemisia californica, Coyotebrush, Baccharis pilularis, Oaks, Quercus sp., Salvia spp., and Eriogonum spp.

The final species of very easy to grow native grasses for lawn lovers, is Thingrass, Agrostis pallens. When it comes to mowing, how low can you go? As low as you want! Okay, maybe the golf course height is a bit too low, but it can be mowed very short, like a standard lawn. When mowed, you get a lawn, but when left to grow and combined with other native species, you have a native meadow that does well in full sun and can even be grown in part to full shade.

Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Preserve native wildflowers in a meadow. Photo by Susan Lewitt.

This grass tolerates a variety of soil types that drain at a medium rate. In a meadow setting, it might bring you the Common Ringlet, the Sand Skipper, the Common Roadside Skipper and the White-lined Sphinx as visitors. Many other natives will grow with this grass in a meadow-like setting or rock garden, including native annuals and perennials. Many of the native trees and large shrubs will appreciate this grass as a companion.

Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Preserve native wildflowers in a meadow. Photo by Susan Lewitt.

For more information on how to create a native meadow and what some of them look like, go to “Creating a Native California Meadow” By David Amme (

Another resource with beautiful ideas for meadows, is an article titled, “Create A Meadow” (

The nine other very easy growing grasses form mounds and fountains. Fountain grasses of varying heights include Deergrass, Muhlenbergia rigens, San Diego Sedge, Carex spissa, Purple Three-Awn, Aristida purpurea, an upright grass called Blue Wildrye, Elymus glaucus, and Small Flowered Melica, Melica imperfecta. Needlegrass, Stipa pulchra, is a fountain grass that is ideal for meadows. Purple Junegrass, Koeleria macrantha, is a course upright grass suitable for golf course roughs, California Brome Grass, Bromus carinatus, an upright grass is short lived but comes back from its own seed. The final one, Small Flowered Needlegrass, Stipa lepida, is a very easy to grow mounding grass that requires more water than other native grasses.

Do you have a hill or riparian area? How about Creeping Wild Rye, Elymus triticoides, for erosion control, and Soft Rush, Juncus effusus, for ornamental ponds and bioswales.

For additional information, see Linda Jones’ article from March 2019 titled “Going Wild with Natives: Native Grasses” about Blue Eyed Grass which is an iris, sedges, and Purple Needle Grass.

Remember, when you add native grasses to your landscaping, there are many benefits including less water usage, less or no fertilizing, and in a meadow like setting, more native pollinator visitors. With the use of native species, you can support biodiversity and have your “lawn” too.


Susan Lewitt is a member of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), participating in their Native Gardening Committee, and their Conservation Committee.


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