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The Coastal Prairie Plant Community of Northern California

The Coastal Prairie is distinct from the grasslands that originally existed in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. The coastal prairie includes the knolls, foothills, valleys, and bluffs near the ocean. This California plant community runs north of San Luis Obispo and, depending on local conditions, can extend 10-20 miles east from the coast. The experts may debate about this distance, but for the purpose of this article what matters is determining if you can use the coastal prairie plants as a lawn substitute in your garden climate.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), a member of the Coastal Prairie plant community

The climatic condition in this community is distinguished by very wet winters, typically 25-30" of rainfall followed by very dry summers. The salt spray close to the ocean makes the clay soil relatively high in salt content, and this clay bakes hard in the summer. The soil can also be rocky or serpentine and many plants in this community are adapted to growing under extremely adverse conditions where they cling to shallow shelves of soil. Plants from the transition communities between the Coastal Prairie and the Coastal Sage Shrub can also be used quite effectively as a lawn substitute. The Eriogogums (Buckwheats) are an example of this type of transition plant.

In the natural state, mulch is not a common material in this California plant community, but without mulch in the home garden, weed control can be an all-consuming task. Hence we recommend the use of mulch as well as some determined hand-pulling of weeds, especially during the first summer. As the natives take over, weeds will decrease over the years.

The plants from this community will not survive in hot central valley and different lawn substitute plants must be used there. If you experience foggy, coastal, and somewhat cooler conditions, then you will probably be successful in substituting your lawn with plants from the Coastal Prairie community. Some plants from this region can survive in somewhat hotter conditions while some really do need cooler coastal conditions. With the latter type of plants, when planting for example in a South San Jose garden, you must locate it where it gets some protection from the intense sun and provide occasional relief during the heat with light overhead sprinkling that resembles summer fog.

The backbone of a foothill meadow is built using perennials, annuals, bulbs, and corms that can provide year-long color, and provide a spectacular (traffic-stopping) interest from March until June. Once a month watering during the hot and dry summer months will guarantee that some of the grasses stay green as well as extend the flowering in some of the plants. If you are planning to water occasionally in the summer, be sure to choose plants, bulbs, and corms that are compatible with this type of watering schedule. Some bulbs are summer dormant varieties and such bulbs can rot with summer water.

Click on this link to look at the list of plants that belong to the California Coastal Prairie community.

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