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Native grasses, sedges and rushes soften transitions

  • Karen Gideon
  • A well-designed garden fits with the architecture and family needs of a home. The design should also complement the natural beauty found in the landscape beyond and the streets and sidewalks that lattice our neighborhoods. The interface between the wild, natural world and a gardener’s dreams and preferences is full of transitions. Skillful garden design treats these areas carefully to ensure flow, harmony and uninterrupted beauty. Key players in transition design are native rushes, grasses and sedges.

    Planting natives is a way to weave the wild plants that pepper our chaparral and oak woodland native lands into our garden design. They give us a chance to connect with the plants that covered the land before homes, highways and fences. Native plants have some advantages for the gardener as well. They are well adapted to the climate, generally low maintenance and require less water, fertilizer and amendments. They also attract pollinators and beneficial insects, as they are an excellent food source for birds, bees and butterflies.

    In garden design, it’s important that the plant choices are aesthetically beautiful. Grasses, sedges and rushes introduce the elements of motion and visual impact. They offer texture, balance, color, and scale. They blend nicely with various sized and colored plants as they do in our natural landscape. On their arching, upright tufts of color they produce understated flowers. While grasses, rushes and sedges can be used in similar situations, they each offer unique characteristics for the gardener.


    Sedges are grass-like plants with triangular stems and blade-like leaves. They do well in full sun or in shade. They have a tufted growth habit, are durable and drought tolerant. Sedges are excellent for erosion control. A native called Carex tumulicola, a clumping evergreen sedge, works well for edging and filling. Cut them down completely in January and they begin regenerating for spring with winter rains. These sedges are easy to divide for propagation.


    Rushes are sometimes called wiregrass because their leaves are round. Rushes have an upright shape, 1 to 3 feet tall, and like their feet in moist soil. They naturally grow near seeps, springs and in riparian zones but can adapt to drier conditions. A handsome native rush is the California gray rush (Juncas patens). The bluish green foliage develops brown bracts on the stems.

    Native Americans used the wiry stems in basketry. Consider dividing these plants to control their size and keep them fresh. This rush is also an excellent container plant.


    Native clumping grasses such as California fescue (Festuca idahoensis), attracts seedeaters and butterflies. They like a sunny spot in the garden or a spot in a dry, shady area. Leafy reed grass (Calamagrotis foliosa) is a native beauty that blooms beautiful blonde flowers. Feather reed grass called “Karl Foerster” sends up tall spiked flowers tipped in gold. To add some color, the blue oatgrass (Heliantatichon sempervirens) is another good selection. Cutting grasses way back in January keeps them fresh looking and healthy in the spring.

    For more ideas on native plants, go to marinmg.ucanr.edu and click on the “Selecting Plants” link and then choose “Native Plants.” Also, the Marin chapter of the California Native Plant Society can be found at cnpsmarin.org.

    Sedges, rushes and grasses are helpful in garden design as blenders, backdrops and accent plants. The gardener can plant grasses to soften hardscape, to cover exposed cement, old stairs, and pipes. Rushes, with their upright stance, can be planted as an accent or to cover an old fence. Sedges work well between larger plants to weave leaf colors together or produce a pop of color.