Restoring a Native Grassland

grassland of rough fescue

rough fescue

In the pasts few years there has been a surge in the number of landowners removing weeds from their property and striving to restore their land to a healthy plant ecosystem. In spite of the best intentions, home owners sometimes end up with disappointing results, especially when relying on landscape professionals that are are familiar with non-native species but often lack knowledge of native species. This post may help.

First, when planning to restore your grassland determine your goal for the land – pasture or grazing land, native habitat or something else. Native grasses are not particularly adapted for grazing and non-native species may be more productive.

Next conduct a site analysis to determine growing conditions and identify species present prior to selecting species for revegetation.

An analysis of a site includes identification of:

    • sun
    • aspect
    • wind
    • soil type
    • water availability for establishment
    • elevation.

Once these are known, consider which grass species fit your site in terms of:

    • sun tolerance
    • wind tolerance
    • soil preference
    • water needs
    • temperature requirements
    • height
    • growing habit
    • aggressiveness
    • reseeding habits
    • root systems
    • drought tolerance
prairie junegrass in bloom

prairie junegrass

Right plant, right place’ is still on of the best mottos to use when considering how to restore a grassland. Selecting plants that are commonly used in restoration projects may or may not meet your goals for your site.


Many seed companies sell cultivars. Cultivars are plant varieties produced by selective breeding or genetic modification for a particular desirable characteristic that is maintained through propagation. These may or may not look like the plants you see naturally occurring around you. My preference is not to use cultivars unless I cannot obtain unmodified native seed.

Cultivars are usually notated in a set of single quotation marks after the botanical name.  For examples Festuca idahoensis ‘Siskiyou blue’.

While there are many native grass species in Montana, not all are available commercially.

Grassland communities vary across ecosystems. Selecting species that are part of plant community similar to yours ensures both a natural look and a successful balance of species (where no one species outcompetes another.)

Taking time to identify the grasses in your area is well worth doing if you want your grassland to look natural! You may be surprised at how many species there are in a small area. Planting a variety of species will fill in root niches, allow a succession of bloom times, and create a natural look.

many stems of bluebunch wheatgrass

bluebunch wheatgrass

Native grasses found in Montana: (note: botanical names are essential!)

Achnatherum hymenoides – indian ricegrass (syn. Oryzopsis hymenoides)

Achnatherum nelsonii – Columbia needlegrass

Achnatherum occidentalis – western needlegrass (syn. stipa occidentalis)

Achnatherum richardsonii – Richardson’s needlegrass (syn. Stipa richardsonii)

Aristida purpurea – purple three-awn

Bouteloua curtipendula – side-oats grama

Bouteloua gracilis – blue grama

Bromus marginatus – mountain brome

Buchloe dactyloides – buffalo grass

Calamagrostis rubescens – pinegrass

Danthonia unispicata – one-spike oat grass

Deschampsia caespitosa – tufted hairgrass (syn. Deschampsia cespitosa)

Elymus canadensis – Canada wildrye

Elymus elymoides – bottlebrush squirrel-tail

Elymus glaucus – blue wildrye

Elymus lanceolatus – thickspike wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron dasystachyum)

Elymus smithii – western wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron smithii, Pascopyrum smithii)

Elymus trachycaulus – slender wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron caninum, Agropyron trachycaulum, Elymus violaceus, Agropyron latiglume, Agropyron subsecundum)

Festuca campestris – rough fescue (syn. Festuca altaica, Festuca scabrella)

Festuca idahoensis – Idaho fescue

Hierochloe odorata – sweetgrass

Hordeum jubatum – foxtail barley

Koeleria macrantha – prairie junegrass (syn. Koeleria cristata, Koeleria nitida, Koeleria pyramidata)

Leymus cinereus – great basin wildrye (syn. Elymus cinereus)

Poa secunda – Sandberg bluegrass

Pseudoroegneria spicata – bluebunch wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron spicatum, Agropyron inerme)

Schizachyrium scoparium – little bluestem (syn. Andropogon scoparius)

Sporobolus cryptandrus – sand dropseed

Stipa comata – needle and thread

Stipa viridula – green needlegrass (syn. Nassella viridula)

grassland with blue grama

blue grama

Once you decide on your species list (a minimum of 5 or 6 species) the next step is to obtain them.  Seeds and containerized plugs or mature plants are all options.

Seeds are the least expensive and best for large areas. On small acreage plugs or containerized plants may be interspersed throughout the seeding area to give the look that things are establishing, to provide some shade for germinating seeds and to produce a new crop of seeds within the first season. Grass seed typically runs about $3/oz. Seed size varies considerably. Three ounces of large seed is many fewer seeds than three ounces of a tiny seed. You will need to base quantities on the number of live seeds per ounce rather than weight.

Plants are obviously more expensive but give instant gratification and help prevent erosion. Plants provide shelter for newly geminating seeds and produce their own crop of seed during the first season to add to you new plants.

Provenance is important. Try to obtain seed/plants sourced from as close to where the property is located as possible. Local seed/plants will be adapted to your area but it isn’t easy to find. Collecting your own seed is ideal if you have the time and place to collect. Be sure to get permission to collect on someone else’s property.

Where to obtain native grass seed.  CO good selection but many cultivars UT/CO great selection but you have to know what is native and what isn’t MT mostly cultivars  OR appropriate mixes, good selection

Cenex – Mountain West Cooperative stores also carry some native grass seed.


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