Working in North San Diego County in the field of landscape has really been been quite an experience and an education for me over the years. Because we have such an even climate and practically never see any snow to speak of near the beach, Encinitas can grow tropical plants from all over the world. But it is now a fact that a weather shift is occurring and California’s water supply is dwindling. As a community, many of us are being forced away from the water thirsty tropical plants and the beloved front lawns that were all the rage during the late 80’s and 90’s when palms and Giant Birds of Paradise ruled the day.
With today’s technology, new drip emitters and the cash rebates available to homeowners and landscape contractors alike, I have come to love new xeriphytic plants and the new ideas that come from designing with low water and low maintenance in mind. Don’t get me wrong, the principles of color, texture and plant movement never change for a designer. Eye candy is still just that, but now, most people want and have come to expect contrast while enjoying low maintenance and drought tolerant plants in their front yards.
Luckily for us in San Diego, there are quite a few plants from around the world that we can choose from while landscaping in and around our homes. Many of the plants that have now become my favorites are from the broad spectrum of the grass family. I was really unaware of how many different types there are,(literally thousands) and how different their independent life cycles and individual environment requirements are.
Not all my following selections are going to loved by everyone since they are grasses and do spread in some cases, but an invasive plant species is just that and there are many cultivars or variations on an invasive species that do not have the original species’ bad traits. One of my favorites, Helictotrichon Sempervirens or the common Blue Oat Grass is from the Western Mediterranean. I genuinely love this plant because it is bullet proof and doesn’t need a baby sitter. Very drought tolerant, this grass gets about 1-2 ft. high and has the most beautiful baby blue color of almost all the grasses. It is a great selection to be used near rocks or boulders or in groups as a low to medium softening plant.
Japanese Blood Grass or Imperta Cylindrical Rubrae is another cultivar and colorful plant that comes from a fairly invasive species original that can grow to tall, makes too much seed and occupies as much space as it can. The Rubrae cultivar I prefer is much smaller, and grows at a much slower pace with vivid blood red leaf tips . It is a beauty to behold when the light gets low.
Believe it or not, Aurea Nigra, another grass favorite of mine is actually a bamboo! This Black Bamboo and its sister, Golden Bamboo are both runners and are considered Leptomorphs rather than Pachymorphs or clumping bamboo. Some bamboo can even be classified as running clumpers! These two delicate bamboos work best as screening material and will stay in one place as long as you water with a drip emitter right where they are planted. Be careful though, saturated soils will promote running.
Two others of my favorite grasses from South Africa are a great addition to your landscape. Caterpillar grass or Harpochloa Falx is found on the eastcape of the continent and has a beautiful flower and seed that looks just like a caterpillar or toothbrush. This plant is smallish and enjoys moist soils and cool temperatures tolerating traffic quite well. Pink Ruby Grass or Rhynchelytrum Neviglumis are also from South Africa. It is a fantastic choice for striking color in your landscape. Although very prolific, Pink Ruby Grass has beautiful pink and reddish flowers and dark black seeds. It loves full sun and pops up quickly in your garden over time if allowed to reseed. When it moves in the wind, only the Mexican Feather Grass or Stipa Tennuifolia challenges it for its beauty.
Plant these grasses in groupings of color and texture. Let your imagination be your guide!