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The graceful grasses.

The graceful grasses

If you think grass is just that green stuff you mow, you haven't met the ornamental grasses. Their rustling leaves, waving flower heads, and soft, billowy shapes give gardens a grace and liveliness few other plants can match.

Grasses are among the easiest perennials to grow. Most are content in ordinary soil, with normal garden watering. They work well in perennial borders, shrub beds, and in fringe areas of the garden--along gravel drives, near walkways, and against house and garden walls.

Adventurous Western gardeners, designers, and nurserymen are rediscovering the value of this large and diverse group of plants, which includes related sedges and rushes as well as dozens of named grass varieties.

Many are newcomers or ones long forgotten; our pictures show how some of them look in garden scenes.

How do you use ornamental grasses?

Form and foliage are their strong points. Plant grasses singly or in groups of three to five to stand alone or soften a stretch of other plants. Don't crowd them; leave enough room to show the leaves' drape and grassy texture.

Give them a prominent place in the garden: the bend of a path, the crook of a planting bed, or in a swath by the front gate. You can tuck them into flower beds--but not haphazardly, or they will look like weeds you forgot to pull.

Many kinds have colored foliage; the chart includes ones with blue, buff, red, and variegated leaves. These often combine well with each other, or with gray and blue-gray plants such as bird of paradise, sedum, senecio, snow-in-summer, statice, and gray junipers.

In summer and fall, some grasses bear beautiful flower panicles as well; in the low desert, purple fountain grass flowers nearly year-round. In warm wheat and champagne colors, they provide a welcome contrast to the vivid colors of normal summer flowers. Foliage and flowers, picked in bloom, can be stunning in arrangements; some kinds make lasting dried flowers.

Planting and pruning

Basically, clumping or hummock-forming grasses and grass relatives are best for home gardens. Avoid those that send aggressive runners underground to run awry in garden beds. In mildest regions, also avoid common green fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum); it self-sows so freely it has become a roadside weed in Southern California and the low desert. This is not a problem in colder regions, however.

To take advantage of strong summer growth, plant grasses in spring or early summer. Avoid planting during hottest months in the low desert.

When planting, set top of rootball at soil level; don't cover plant crown with soil. Water to keep soil around roots moist until established.

Blue oat grass, the fescues, and sedges (and, in warm-winter areas, feather reed grass and purple fountain grass) are ever-green. Like most perennials, though, they have periods when their foliage looks shabby. In the fall, pull off dead leaves and trim spent flowers. Or shear all but blue oat grass and sedges to the ground and let foliage grow in new.

Prune other kinds when foliage dies back in winter or after leaves brown. In coldest climates, ones that turn pale gold and biscuit provide winter accent; cut back in early spring before new growth starts.

Photo: Silvery ribbon grass flanks a border of giant-plumed feather grass and soldier-stiff feather reed grass at VanDusen Botanical Gardens, Vancouver, B.C.

Photo: Blue fescue in bloom sets off vivid pink geraniums and red petunias in this Denver garden. A raised bed lifts them up to view

Photo: Tall striped eulalia grass punctuates a June-flowering perennial border. Design: Chris Rosmini, Los Angeles

Photo: Rusty leaves are the rule for fox red curly sedge. Bring it to the foreground near paving or a wood deck

Photo: Sampling of sizes and shapes: our collection shows flowers and foliage of seven different grasses; for comments on them, see chart at right
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:ornamental grasses
Date:Jun 1, 1986
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