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Useful Grasses

In permaculture, we often talk about getting rid of lawns. But that does not mean that we avoid grasses altogether. Though we abhor growing non-native grasses as mono-cultures, there are numerous ways in which different grasses are incorporated into our growing schemes.

In this article, we will talk more about grasses and what they are – take a quick look at their history and where they are found. We will examine different plants that belong to the grass family and talk about why we might wish to include them in our schemes. We will take a look at how we should choose the grasses we incorporate, and where they might potentially be grown in a permaculture scheme.

What are Grasses?

Grasses are plants within the large Poaceae or Gramineae plant family. These are monocotyledonous plants, commonly referred to as monocots.

Monocots are flowering plants with seeds that typically only contain one embryonic leaf, or cotyledon. This distinguishes them from the rest of flowering plants, which have two cotyledons and are known as dicotyledons, or dicots.

Grasses are monocots, alongside other grass-like plants that are not technically grasses but which are sometimes loosely related, like rushes and sedges, and seagrasses.

The plant family of grasses has around 12,000 species, and it is the fifth-largest plant family in the world and one of the most economically important. Grasses are found on every continent – including Antarctica.

Grassland habitats (where grasses are the predominant vegetation) are estimated to cover around 40.5% of the land area on Earth, excluding Greenland and Antarctica. UNESCO defines grassland as “land covered with herbaceous plants with less than 10 percent tree and shrub cover”

The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Sciences (Allaby, 1998) sums up where grasslands are found:

“Grassland occurs where there is sufficient moisture for grass growth, but where environmental conditions, both climatic and anthropogenic, prevent tree growth. Its occurrence, therefore, correlates with a rainfall intensity between that of desert and forest and is extended by grazing and/or fire to form a plagioclimax in many areas that were previously forested.”

Of course, grasses are also present in many other ecosystems, as a smaller proportion of the vegetation present.

Types of Grass

Broadly speaking, grasses have a growth point low at the base or the blade and not from elongated stem tips, which distinguishes them from other plants and results in their characteristics of being able to be mown or grazed regularly without severe damage to the plants. But different grasses have different growth habits.

Some grasses are bunching grasses (caespitose), some are stoloniferous (with stolons or runners), and some are rhizomatous (with rhizomes, or underground stems).

All grasses photosynthesis, but there are different photosynthetic pathways. Some grasses are C3 and some are C4.

Grasses that survive solely on C3 fixation (C3 plants) tend to thrive in areas where sunlight intensity is moderate, temperatures are moderate, carbon dioxide concentrations are around 200 ppm or higher, and groundwater is plentiful. The C4 grasses have increased water use efficiency, which makes them better adapted to hot, arid environments.

Often, C3 grasses are referred to as cool-season grasses, while C4 grasses are referred to as warm-season ones.

There are both annual and perennial grasses.

When looking at the different grasses, it is important to understand that this group of plants incorporates not only those species commonly referred to as grass but also a number of cereal crops, and also bamboos.

Grasses might be:

  • Cereal Grasses
  • Natural Grassland Species
  • Lawn and Pasture Species
  • Bamboos

Cereal Grasses

This first group of grasses are of huge human and economic importance. There are a number of grasses grown as common commercial crops around the world.


The largest subfamily of the grass family Poaceae is the Pooideae. These are cool-season grasses, which, as mentioned above, use the C3 photosynthetic pathway. Some major cereal crops such as wheat (and wheat variants and hybrids), barley, oats, and rye belong in this group of grasses.

These cereals are of course major crops grown annually in agricultural systems in temperate regions and sometimes in cooler or mountainous areas elsewhere. Barley and rye are the hardiest of these and are able to overwinter even in the subarctic regions and Siberia.


Another very important group of grasses, and the second largest subfamily of Poaceae, this category of plants is mainly found in warm temperate and tropical regions.

Some of the most important agricultural crops globally are found within this subfamily, including maize/ corn, sorghum, most millets, switchgrass, and sugarcane.

These crops are of course cultivated in many different regions around the world, and some have much better drought tolerance than others.


This is a subfamily of grasses which includes the major cereal crop rice, along with wild rice and a number of other species.

Rice, the major food crop, is typically derived from species Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima, which are tall wetland grasses. These, along with other species/ subspecies all provide a versatile edible grain and are commonly cultivated in rice paddies or in dry fields, depending on the variety.

It is believed that rice was first domesticated in the Yangtze River basin in China 13,500 to 8,200 years ago.

Unfortunately, as those who are familiar with sustainable agricultural practices will know, cereal arable farming sadly often comes at a massive cost to people and planet, and many farms growing cereal grains are not doing so in ways compatible with permaculture ethics and ideas.

Often, these cereals are grown in plowed or tilled mono-crop fields with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Both the tilling and management and the other practices of much conventional arable farming degrade the precious soil ecosystem and contribute to biodiversity losses. Water use and poor water management problems can also be common in such farming.

Sadly, many grains are grown not to feed people but to feed livestock or for other uses such as to create whisky here in Scotland. This leads to many important questions being asked about land use, and how we can care for our environment better while truly ensuring that we meet human needs for food etc. as close to home as possible.

The so-called Green Revolution of the 20th Century led to significant increases in the production of high-yielding cereal crops worldwide. But these high-yield cereal crops are lacking in nutrition and do not provide the same as organic 'heritage' or 'heirloom' grains. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in growing these varieties of wheat etc..

Where I live, for example, we have a wonderful local company 'Scotland the Bread' milling heritage wheat varieties and selling super local flour to local people. They also encourage cultivation of heritage varieties at a range of scales.

Natural Grassland Species

Another major group of grasses are those that are found within natural grassland environments. There are numerous different type of grassland and names for such environments around the world, from prairies, to meadows, to savannah to steppes...

Remember, here we are talking about natural grassland where grass remains the dominant feature of the landscape for reasons other than human intervention or grazing livestock. Natural grasslands retain natural biodiversity and are kept at this stage in ecological succession by climate or other environmental factors and/or the grazing of native wildlife.

Often, though they can cover large areas, grassland ecosystems are threatened by human encroachment and by farming. The fact that American tallgrass prairies now cover only a tiny fraction of the land they once did is one example.

Lawn and Pasture Species

Another group of grasses are those that are deliberately planted by humans as lawn and/or farm pasture species.

Though, in permaculture, we will never plant grass on its own, there are many instances when we might need to think carefully about which grasses we might grow to meet our specific needs, alongside the legumes and forbs that turn it from an ecological desert of grass to a true and functioning ecosystem.


Another category within Poaceae are a group of plants that many will not think of as grasses at all: bamboo. But bamboos, which are classified within the subfamily of grasses called Bambusoideae, are also important members of the grass family.

Bamboos are a diverse group of mostly perennial evergreen flowering plants.

Bamboos are categorized into three groups: New World herbaceous species (Olyreae), tropical woody bamboos (Bambuseae), and temperate woody bamboos (Arundinarieae). Most bamboo is found in warm and moist climates, both tropical and temperate, though some bamboos can also extend to higher elevations and to cooler locations.

Like the cereal crops discussed above, bamboos can also be of great human, commercial importance. We can use bamboo in a huge range of different ways, making this family of plants extremely useful.

They can potentially provide edible yields of bamboo shoots. They can also often be very useful constructional materials, and can be used in a range of ways in natural building, from building framework construction, to flooring, to natural textiles... and more.

However, some bamboos can become invasive in certain settings and so must always be introduced with caution, especially if they are not native to the region where they are grown.

Why Grow Grasses?

There are of course many different reasons why we might wish to grow grasses. We might grow them:

  • As food sources (often staples of our diets).
  • For other human yields (biomass, fuel, fibres, building materials etc...)
  • As fodder and/or forage for livestock.
  • As groundcover to protect the soil/ prevent erosion/ stabilize slope.
  • For wildlife, and to encourage biodiversity where we live.

Exploring the different ways in which grasses can be useful to us, either for their yields or as part of our designs, can help us understand where and how we can incorporate these types of plants to benefit from their positive characteristics and properties.

Choosing Which Grasses to Grow

Grasses are such a large and diverse group of plants that you may be overwhelmed when trying to find the right options for a particular location and a particular scheme.

As always, when choosing plants, it is important to go back to basics and look at the terrain, climate conditions and existing vegetation around you.

Often, the surrounding plants and ecosystems will help you to see which options will thrive in your area, and which grasses, cereal crops or bamboos you might grow.

As always, when choosing grasses to plant, it is a great idea to begin with native options before branching out to consider other plants that might thrive in the particular location.

Where Grasses Might Be Grown in a Permaculture Scheme

As you think about which grasses you might select for a particular permaculture scheme, it is of course also important to think about your designs as a whole, and to consider your overall intentions and goals before you hone in on your specific plant choices.

To help you think through different choices and for some inspiration, perhaps, here are some of the places grasses might be grown in a permaculture scheme:

Native Grassland Planting Schemes

As permaculture practitioners, we might become involved in ecosystem restoration schemes, and aim to restore areas of native grassland habitat. Of course, in such scenarios, we need to explore the different grasses that naturally belong in that environment, and what they require in order to succeed.

Grassland conservation and restoration can be a complex and fascinating area, sometimes requiring unique ecological interventions such as controlled burns, for example. So it is important to think not only about the grasses in isolation but how they are combined with other plants within an ecosystem and of course the broader environmental conditions in which they are found.

Wildflower Meadow or Prairie Planting in Gardens

Learning from and mimicking native environments to some degree, there is also the option to create a native grassland-like habitat within a garden setting. A wildflower meadow, or a prairie planting scheme, for example, can be a wonderful permaculture project for a gardener.

Creating a native environment with native wildflowers, legumes and grasses combined can enhance the biodiversity in your garden and make the space a wildlife haven. Utilising native species can also potentially help safeguard important species allowing for later ecosystem restoration.

Arable Crop Cultivation

Remember, many grasses are common arable cereal crops, and these can be grown at a range of scales on farms, or even in larger gardens where some space is available.

At a larger scale, arable cereal crop production can be managed far more sustainably than it is by many farmers today. The key, for one thing, is to take care of the soil, which means moving to a no till or at least a minimal till approach, and farming organically.

Farmers can also consider moving towards a model of perennial production, incorporating trees between alleys of cereal crops, for example – and choosing to practice silvo-arable agroforestry on their farms. They can use cover crops and green manures, and keep a living root in the soil.

Also key to the future of cereal crop production is regenerative farming, agroecological practices, and the integration of livestock and arable farming, which has become decoupled with devastating results.

Researchers are currently working on the development of perennial cereal crops, which would be a game-changer for sustainability. There are several viable propositions so fully perennial broadly adopted, commercial grain production might not be too far off, at least for some of the common cereal crop grasses.

Gardeners can also grow grains from these grasses on a smaller scale – perhaps as part of rotations in an annual vegetable garden.

Certain grasses can be beneficial in rotation as nitrogen storers, as green manures or for other similar purposes. A few can be beneficial companion plants for specific fruits or vegetables.

For Livestock Pasture

Of course, while many of the grains we grow are grown for the consumption of livestock, we can also repair broken systems by providing pasture for livestock, and keeping livestock on the land to add fertility to it, rather than keeping them in horrendous conditions in factory farms.

Grasses will of course often be used to create, maintain or improve pasture lands for different livestock.

Selecting the right species of grasses (along with forbs and legumes) for different animals is very important – just as important as ensuring the right stocking density and rotation to protect the vegetation and keep the groundcover in place.

Forest Gardens or Food Forest Fringes

Bamboos, as well as certain other grasses will of course also often find their place in a food forest or forest garden scheme. We will typically focus on including grasses not as groundcover but as individual specimens that provide specific yields. Grasses tend to be more common in warmer climate food forests and are often less desirable in temperate climate forest gardens.

Another thing to note is that keeping grasses out of the system can also sometimes be a concern, and we may use barrier plants to try to limit grass ingress into a forest garden area. Daffodils, for example, are sometimes placed around a fruit tree guild in order to suppress grass growth within the drip line of the tree.

The reason why we do not always want grass sward in a food forest or forest garden is that when grass covers the soil, a bacterial soil tends to predominate. While in a woodland or forest setting, we are seeking to establish a soil with strong fungal ecology.

Of course grasses can also be used in many other ways. They might be used as groundcover for pathways and access areas.

They are often used for soil protection, erosion control, and slope stabilization. They are often used to hold upper soil layers in place alongside other plants used for erosion control. Vetiver grass, for example, is one tropical grass species often used to aid in this regard, sometimes planted in low hedges across slopes. This useful grass is also used in other key ways – to reduce pest problems for example.

And grasses are, of course, also used for many areas used for sports, games or other forms of recreation. We all just have to remember that when it comes to grasses, we can look beyond the lawn and find a range of more eco-friendly, biodiverse and productive schemes to consider.

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