Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A few thoughts on creating a near to Natural Grassland

Creating a near to Natural Grassland is far easier said than done but it is certainly not impossible as can be seen from the photograph below taken of a portion of one of my grass gardens I have been growing for the last six years in my in my own garden at Mount Moreland.

Berkheya insignis

Although I have been experimenting since the mid 1970´s with growing very many grassland plants species and in establishing and managing grasslands on a small scale there are still many questions than remain unanswered. There are no doubt many methods and combinations of methods that can be successfully used the scale of the project will usually determine the method used to establish your grassland.

I will only present one method in this article the method I would use on a small to medium scale in the re-creation of grassland habitat, it is easy enough to adapt to the small scale home garden grassland. Large scale re-creation of grassland needs to be looked at in a very different light, for such large scale creation of grassland much reliance would need to be put on assisting and guiding natural processes of regeneration to do the work. Below I have presented a few short guidelines that need to be taken in to account when attempting to create a small to medium sized grassland the rest is probably going to be up to natural processes beyond your control. These are just a few guidelines gained from about 40 years of experimenting, as I certainly do not have all the answers after so many years of trying, managing your own grassland is going to be a challenge that will be most rewarding

Grassland habitats bring large numbers of insects in particular bees and butterflies into the garden and surprising to many the grasses bring in the most. 

Anthericum saundersiae

Many other small creatures are at home in grassland
such as  some of the smaller skinks including burrowing skinks and plated lizards. The golden mole is also a resident of my grasslands. 

Weeds and their control

One question that still remains very much unanswered and may probably never be satisfactorily answered is the matter of weed control. Without exception any natural grassland that has been disturbed or put to another use very rapidly becomes infested with both foreign as well as indigenous weeds, as well as woody plant invaders such as Chromaleana odorata. Another huge problem that is often encountered in former disturbed areas and abandoned farmlands is Cyperus esculentus, (yellow nut sedge or nut grass). This presents a huge problem for anyone who has in mind to create a suburban grassland garden or to re-habilitate grassland on a much larger scale on abandoned farmland. Clearly the biggest problem in establishing and managing an establishing grassland is the control of the weeds that will germinate and grow in profusion as soon as disturbance occurs such as the preparing of the seed bed and the planting of grass seed or the planting of growing plants takes place. In fact the control and management of weeds in the grassland is the key to success and is always going to present huge problems after the flowering plants are introduced into the grassland as thereafter selective herbicides can no longer be used.

Reducing the number of weed seeds and nut sedge in the soil before planting begins will certainly have a major influence on the success of the project as failing to do so will ensure huge competition with the grass plants one is wanting to establish, in particular on large scale projects where grass is being planted by means of seed over vast areas.
The old saying more haste less speed certainly is the case in establishing a stable grassland community. It would certainly be of great benefit to plan the establishment of the grass land with great thought and detail then to go about the project methodically taking into account the weather conditions that nature presents you with at the time of establishment.

Choice of grass species

Melinis nerviglumis

From the very beginning it must be taken into account that a grassland is not a grassland without grass plants they play by far the major role in the ecosystem the larger the number of species the better the grassland.
The choice of grass species to be planted will be determined by a number of factors in particular the nature of the soil, whether it is sand, loam or clay, the lay of the land for instance is it flat or sloping, or does it face north, south, east of west. The soil moisture and drainage are also very important factors to consider in choosing the species of grass to be planted as different grasses have different soil and moisture requirements. For the small home garden low growing less vigorous decorative grasses with low leaf production are probably the ones to choose from. In most cases it would be most practical to plant the grass seed in situ.
For the small home garden it would probably be an option to grow the grass plants needed to establish the grass garden in containers in a separate nursery area to be planted later together with the grassland forbs into their final positions in the grass garden.
Most if not all of the seed that will need to be used is probably going to need to be specially collected and processed as the commercial seed merchants only stock improved varieties of our local grasses that have been specifically selected and bred for producing pastures. For projects I have undertaken I have mostly collected and dried my own seed.
For the smaller project some of the grass species required can be bought from nurseries or nurseries will grow them for you.
Try the internet it is amazing what you can find for sale or what you can obtain if you make your requirements known

Choice of grassland flowering plants

Thunbergia atriplicifolia

Here similar factors come into play as for when choosing grasses for the small home garden and be sensible do not try to grown large or vigorous growing plants because  they will soon cause problems, also avoid weedy species that multiply rapidly by seed. Make sure that a good number of legumes are included in the selection of the plants to be used as they play an important role in the ecosystem in particular by providing nitrogen to the grasses and other plants.

For many species it is probably better to grow the plants needed to establish the grass land or grass garden in containers in a separate nursery area to be planted out later into their final positions in the grass land or garden at the appropriate time. Many of the grassland forbs, in particular those with bulbs or large underground storage organs are best grown from seed planted into beds in the ground or raised beds. When it is the correct time to plant them out usually after the first spring rains simply cut back the above ground growth and then plant them out directly into the ground. This method vastly reduces the losses when planting out into the field, in fact any plant that can be cut back should be cut back before planting out into the field.

Plant sources

Nurseries are the first choice for many home owners wanting to establish a small home garden grassland
in particular those who do not have the skills or time to produce their own plants.
Another option is to rescue plants from development sites, here it would be necessary to obtain the landowners permission and possibly permits form the authorities in the case of protected plants.
Grow your own. Collect seed and or vegetative propagating material and grow the plants required in a nursery established for the purpose, this would be essential for larger projects.  Here again it would be necessary to obtain the landowners permission and possibly permits form the authorities in the case of protected plants.
Try the internet it is amazing what you can find for sale or what you can obtain if you make your requirements known

Preparation of the site for planting the grass seed

The site to be planted needs to be freed of all rubble and other foreign materials, this may sound rather obvious to most people but does not appear to be so to some. The next step would be to spray the entire area with a non selective herbicide to remove all unwanted vegetation. Burn, turn by hand or plough the entire area to create a fine seed bed then smooth but do not compact the surface ready for planting at the same time incorporating a pre-emergence herbicide for broad leafed weeds if one is being used. It is important to sow the seed as soon after preparation as is possible. If there is a serious problem with nut grass it may pay to deal with this problem as best one can before doing final seedbed preparation and the planting of the grass seed.
If you need tractors and farming equipment try your local farmer or place an ad on the internet.

Planting the grass seed

Standard agricultural seed drills or spreaders will be suitable for planting many of the seeds however some seed may need to be hand distributed if the machinery available or the seed being planted is not suitable. Hydroseeding is also a viable option if the equipment is available at a reasonable cost. Some grasses that have a low seed production can only be established by planting live plant material.

Additional notes for the home garden

Kniphofia tysonii

Position your grass garden in as open a position as possible because grassland need lots of sun and does not particularly like to be in shadow for too much of the day. The other big consideration is the nearness to trees because their roots compete for both nutrients and water if they can reach. 
Group your plants for effectiveness this also promotes good cross pollination and seed production
Many plants of the family Compositae are very showy and do well such as Gazania, Helichrysum, Berkheya, Vernonia, Senecio.
The small decorative home garden grassland would benefit from a light topdressing of well rotted compost and a little well balance fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season.
Hand weeding is going to need to be done to keep the grassland free of unwanted weeds
In a small grassland natural processes can not be relied upon to keep it in equilibrium therefore there is going to be the need for the annual or continual removal of excessively vigorous plants and those that multiply too freely and for others that find it hard to maintain their presence replacement on an annual basis will be required.
Keep a list of the plants that were planted and propagate or buy the ones that do not readily reproduce by themselves when replacements are needed. 
Be vary wary of planting plants that can easily become weeds such as Justicia lutea and vigorous creeping plants
Watering may be beneficial at times in particular if one burns early to promote an early flush of spring flowers as I do on portions of my grassland.
The grass must be allowed to start drying out mid summer to early autumn and winter so that the plants can rest. After the aloes have flowered I then cut or burn the grass and irrigate to start the spring off a little early.
When planning to burn warn your neighbours! Plan to burn small areas at a time and before burning water the surrounding areas very well and do not forget to be on standby together with your neighbour with your hosepipes in hand and turned on. 
Do not expect your grassland to look good all year round because it must rest and dry out in the winter to look its best in the springtime after the rains arrive.

Managing the grassland

When establishing grassland on a larger scale it is going to be necessary to establish a relatively stable grassland until annual weeds have been sufficiently suppressed by the grasses because once the broadleaf plants have been added one can no longer control the broad leaf weeds by chemical means. Grass weeds that may become a problem will need to be spot treated with a non-selective herbicide or be removed by hand.
The grass must be mowed and not be allowed to grow too long in the first months after establishment so as to allow those grasses that germinate or grow slower to reach a reasonable maturity before slowly allowing the grasses to grow taller between mowing, if this is not done the slower species will simply die out and the faster growing species will dominate. I believe it would be most beneficial to graze the grassland once well established with goats and sheep and possibly even cows in a controlled manner to promote healthy growth of the grasses and to maintain the highest possible plant density. In fact I am presently doing trials using an Nguni Sheep and an Nguni Goat to see the effect on the plant populations in my own grasslands.

My gardening assistants Imvu and Imbuzi inspecting newly planted grasses

In the first years both during and following establishment it would probably be beneficial to burn the grassland annually in particular if the grassland is not grazed or the grass is not cut during the year, thereafter the decision to burn or not to burn must be based on the condition of the grassland at the time when burning should occur.

Planting the grassland forbs

The forbs and other grassland plants must be introduced to the grassland at a much later date the soonest being the following growing period. Thereafter any weeding out of weeds with herbicides will need to be done very carefully if at all or by hand pulling making sure to deal with each weed specie before it has the opportunity to set seed.

Some of the plants that have done well for me in my ornamental grass section


Melinis nerviglumis
Panicum natalense
Andropogon eucomis
Eragrostris racemosa
Eragrostis capensis
Themeda triandra
Hyparrhenia filipendula

These are all small varieties with low leaf production which are ideal for an ornamental grass garden, those with a high leaf production are more ideal as for larger natural grasslands and for development as pasture grasses but not for your ornamental home grass garden.

Flowering plants

Dianthus zeyheri

Aloe maculata
Anomatheca laxa
Anthericum saundersiae
Aster bakerianus
Berkheya insignis
Berkheya speciosa
Berkheya umbellate
Bulbine abyssinica
Bulbine asphodeloides
Crocrosmia aurea
erbera ambigua
Gerbera piloselloides
Gladiolus daleni
Gladiolus woodii
Helichrysum aureum
Hypoxis angustifolia
Hypoxis hemerocallidea
Hypoxis rigidula
Kniphofia tysonii
Plectranthus hardiensis
Ruellia cordata
Scadoxus puniceus
Senecio coronatus
Thunbergia atriplicifolia
Thunbergia natalensis
Vernonia capensis
Vernonia hirsutus
Vernonia natalensis

Xysmalobium undulatum

Other Grasses
I presently have the following grasses plus a few more in the form of seed or seedlings that may have survived the drought growing in different habitats in my garden

Acroceras macrum                                           
Agrostis eriantha
Aristida junciformis
Bothriochloa insculpta
Brachiaria brizantha
Cenchrus ciliaris                                                
Chloris gayana
Cymbopogon plurinodis                                    
Cynodon dactylon
Dactyloctenium australe                                     
Digitaria eriantha
Digitaria sanguinalis
Ehrharta erecta
Eleusine coracana                                             
Eriochloa meyeriana                                                                                      
Eragrostis ciliaris
Eragrostis curvula
Eragrostis racemosa
Festuca scabra
Hemarthria altissima                                          
Hyparrhenia hirta                                              
Hyparrhenia sp silver foliage
Hyparrhenia sp very tall yellow stem
Hyparrhenia filipendula
Imperata cylindrical
Ischaemum fasciculatum                                    
Leersia hexandra
Melica racemosa                                                  
Melinis nerviglumis
Melinis repens                                                  
Oplismenus hirtellus
Panicum schinzii
Panicum deustum
Panicum maximum
Panicum natalense
Panicum repens
Setaria megaphylla
Setaria sphacelata var sericea
Setaria plicatilis
Setaria verticillata
Sorgum bicolor
Sporobolus africanus
Sporobolus fimbriatus
Themeda triandra                                           

Michael Hickman
Ecosystems Manager
Landscape Design Specialist


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