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Wonderful weeds? Textural kings of the garden?

Wonderful weeds? Textural kings of the garden?

Bold and billowy at maturity, annual ornamental grasses actually lead double lives. Young and without their later-developing seed heads, most look like an everyday garden weed: good fodder for the compost pile. But when allowed to produce their seed stalks, they become the textural kings of the gardening world, especially handsome when combined in containers with flowering annuals or perennials. As we discovered in Sunset's test gardens, such container plantings can be real attention getters.

You'll find many grasses to try

Ornamental grasses and grass look-alikes are becoming increasingly popular. Some perennial types, such as blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca) and purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum "Cupreum'), can be bought as transplants in many nurseries. Most work well planted in containers. However, at Sunset we started with grasses popular for dried bouquets-- mostly annuals that are easy to grow from seed. The wonderful results are pictured on the opposite page.

Sow grass seed soon

All the grasses shown here are cool-season plants, meaning they grow leaves in cool weather, then send up seed heads as days get warmer in spring. Sow seed as soon as possible, so by midspring you'll have strong plants that can, after the last frost, be combined with warm-season flowering annuals and perennials.

You can germinate annual grasses indoors in nursery flats or sixpacks like any other seed, but it's easier just to broadcast seeds in soil-filled containers and keep them in a sunny spot outdoors. Cover the pots with clear plastic to keep them warm, and make sure they stay moist; the seeds will come up in a few weeks. After germination, feed every two weeks with a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer.

Design the planting by plant size

Any type of container will work, but wide ones will give you the best show. Half-barrels work particularly well.

To plant, knock the grasses out of the pots, soil and all, and cut the clumps into 2- to 3-inch sections with a trowel or spade. Use the sections as transplants.

Arrange plants by size, with the tallest ones in the middle (or at the back, if the container will be viewed from only one side). Use progressively smaller plants toward the perimeter.

Placing plants closer together than you would in open soil will give you a stronger display. But you'll have to water more frequently as they mature.

Mix and match textures, colors

For the most dramatic effect, blend leaf textures and flower colors. Contrast the billowy seed heads of annual grasses with bolder-textured plants such as dusty miller. Or set them off against the spire-like blue flowers of Salvia farinacea.

Plants that will cascade over the edge, such as cloud grass (Agrostis nebulosa), trailing lobelia, cascade petunias, and sweet alyssum, are ideal for the outer perimeter (A in the drawing on opposite page) of the container. Try varieties with related colors, such as pink lobelia and sweet alyssum in front with pink, red, or purple petunias just behind.

Place more upright-growing plants such as marigolds, geraniums, or zinnias behind the low growers. Plants that bear their flowers on long stems, such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or yarrow, also work well. Warm-toned yellow, orange, and red flowers, like those of blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora), also complement the dry look of the grass's seed heads.

Plant tallest grasses in the container's center so other plants will cover up their often scraggly-looking bases.

Where to buy grass seed

Many mail-order flower seed catalogs also sell some annual grasses. For a larger selection, write for free catalogs from The Country Garden, Route 2, Box 455A, Crivitz, Wis. 54114, or Thompson & Morgan, Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527 (send $2 to receive either catalog by first-class mail).

Photo: This month, sow grass seed in 1- or 5-gallon-size pots. Cover seeds lightly with soil, then moisten. Set pots in full sun

Photo: Eight to 10 weeks later, or after the last frost, weedy-looking grass such as brome, backround, is ready to transplant; front pots holds grass and blooming annuals

Photo: By mid-June, pots of annual grasses and flowers (lobelia, petunias, and blue salvia) are in full glory on Sunset patio

Photo: Seven annual grasses:

1 Durum wheat (Triticum turgidum), 24 to 36 in.

2 Little quaking grass (Briza minor), 8 to 12 in.

3 Big quaking grass (B. maxima), 12 to 24 in.

4 Brome (Bromus lanceolatus), 12 to 24 in.

5 Cloud grass (Agrostis nebulosa), 12 to 18 in.

6 Hare's-tail grass (Lagurus ovatus), 12 to 24 in.

7 Canary grass (Phalaris canariensis), 24 to 48 in.

Photo: Arrange plants by height with low growers (A) near outside of pot, slightly taller ones (B) next, tallest (c) in center
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Feb 1, 1988
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