With Ornamental Grass, Seeding's Believing : Growers Are Taken With Its Versatility, Though the Lively Ground Cover Has Been Slowto Catch On Here

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Grass, horticulturally speaking, is fashion-forward. "People say there's nothing new in horticulture, but that's not true," says John Greenlee of Greenlee Nursery, a Pomona wholesaler specializing in ornamental grasses.

"Even in the '20s and '30s, the heyday of nurseries in this country, there were only a few dozen varieties of grasses to choose from. Now there are several hundred."

Yet ornamental grasses are rarely used by gardeners in Southern California. Most landscape architects haven't discovered them, and the retail nurseries that carry grasses find them hard to sell. Greenlee sells the majority of his plants to the East Coast.

One reason for the market's reticence to explore this category is inexperience.

Ornamental grasses fell out of favor in this country in the '30s and by the '50s were unavailable. Germany, meanwhile, was becoming enamored with ornamental grasses, thanks to their promotion by nurseryman Karl Foerster.

It wasn't until such German-schooled landscape architects and horticulturists as Wolfgang Oehme, Kurt Bluemel and Hans Hanses emigrated to the United States in the late '50s, bringing Foerster's influence with them, that interest in grasses began to germinate again here. It would take several more decades for their ideas to take hold on the East Coast and spread West.

So we've gone from a 40-year drought where ornamental grasses are concerned to a veritable flood of choices in the last few years. No wonder we're confused.

Ornamental grasses are just like any other perennial, though, says Greenlee. They can be used for everything from ground covers to hedges, screens to slope stabilizers. One of the easiest ways to begin experimenting with them, he says, is by including a few in a mixed border.

Fescues, a large category of plants that grow in neat circular mounds when used as accent plants rather than ground covers, make good edging or rock garden candidates. The majority of fescues have blue-gray foliage, like the readily available F. ovina "Glauca," but you can find varieties in everything from pale ice blue to dark bottle green. Fescues range from 3 inches to 2 feet in height.

Festuca muelleri, a true green fescue with a softer texture than most plants in this family, is a good seller at the Laguna Garden Nursery in Laguna Beach, according to owner Kevin Naughton. He thinks Festuca "April Color," a new variety with subtle gray-green foliage tipped in lavender and pink, deserves the same popularity. Naughton can picture it with succulents having the same pastel shadings. It would also look pretty in front of Mexican evening primrose or any other mid-sized perennial with light pink or lavender blooms.

Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica "Red Baron") is also highly suitable for the front of the border. A dozen or so of its upright, blood-red blades look rather unimpressive in a 4-inch pot, but the rhizomatous plant spreads slowly and densely once planted, forming a little island of bright-red foliage, particularly in the winter when cooler temperatures intensify its color. Japanese blood grass looks dramatic backlighted by afternoon sun, especially when a number of plants are massed together.

Briza media, which grows into a 10-inch tuft of medium green, is another choice plant for the front of the border, suggests Greenlee. "Cats like it; they bat at the flower stalks. Kids like it. Everyone thinks it's cute."

The main attraction of the plant is its heart-shaped flower heads that change from bright green to wheat-colored over the summer and are often used in dried flower arrangements. Without them Briza looks like, well, grass.

Pennisetum, or fountain grass, is a good choice for the mid-border. If you've ever admired the pink-plumed grasses growing alongside the freeway--a pennisetum variety--you'll like two of its more cultivated cousins.

Pennisetum setaceum "Rubrum" is a burgundy-bladed variety with pink and purple flower stalks. The 3-foot plant has a graceful, willowy appearance and is heat and drought tolerant.

Linda Cooper of Cooper & Cooper in Laguna Beach uses it often in her projects. "It looks good spilling over just about any mid-sized perennial," she says. "I've used it with Mexican evening primrose, gaura, penstemon, artemisia, Australian bluebells, all kinds of things. It is absolutely spectacular with Helichrysum 'Limelight,' if you can find it."

Carol Hoffman, Greenlee's assistant, also likes Pennisetum Orientale for its showy, foxtail-like, lavender-pink blooms, which the plant produces in abundance, and also for its short foliage, a space-saving feature appreciated in smaller gardens.

Blue Oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) is another good mid-border choice landscape architects are beginning to discover. This handsome 2-foot tall plant has stiff, silvery-blue blades and an upright habit, making it nice contrast to softer perennials.

Michael Sullivan, senior associate at SLA Studio Land of Costa Mesa, took advantage of the plant's architectural quality by combining it with soft, mound-shaped plants like purple and yellow lantana and orange desert honeysuckle in a project at the Laguna Audubon development in Aliso Viejo.

Other gardeners have suggested catmint, lavender, Russian sage, and such low-growing sedums as "Ruby Glow" as companion plants.

All the grasses mentioned so far prefer full sun. For partial or full shade, members of the carex family are better choices. One of the most unusual plants in this category is leatherleaf sedge (C. buchananii). Greenlee describes the plant as "everbrown," which somehow doesn't quite do it justice. Cinnamon tinged with apricot sounds more like it.

Naughton at Laguna Gardens Nursery says it's one of his favorite plants. "But I can't give it away. People just don't seem to know what to do with it."

Contrast it with plants with red or blue foliage, suggests Greenlee, or combine it with similarly subtle succulents and cactus.

One of the best candidates for the back of the border is giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea). Despite its name, the plant doesn't require an estate-sized garden. The foliage--a densely tufted hummock of gray-green--is only about 2-feet high. Its flower stalks, however, will rise at least 3 feet above the foliage, producing a straw-colored fountain.

"Nothing catches light like stipas," says Greenlee. "This plant just shimmers in the sun. It's one of the showiest grasses we sell."

Feather Reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora stricta) is another good choice. It grows 4 to 7 feet tall, depending on soil conditions and watering, and stands straight as a soldier at drill. Flower plumes begin pink, dry to a golden-wheat color in late summer and look good in flower arrangements.

Also in the big-but-beautiful category is Miscanthus sinensis "Morning Light," a tall, urn-shaped plant, about 5-feet high and nearly as wide when mature, whose cream-colored edges gleam when the sun is behind it. It takes up a lot of space, but if you have it, it's worth it.

SLA Studio Land's planting at Laguna Audubon shows how a number of ornamental grasses can be combined in mixed beds with more familiar perennials.

The space Sullivan worked with at the Aliso Viejo project was roughly triangular, intersected with a circular walkway and at the base of a steep grade blanketed with marguerites. In the lower half of the plot, Sullivan planted blue oat grass surrounded by various shades of lantana and edged the walkway with Carex "Berkeley." In the upper segment he placed dwarf pampas and miscanthus so that their tall flower stalks would spill over boulders. In between he worked in yellow kangaroo paw, pride of madeira and purple flax.

In his own back yard in Fullerton, Sullivan was more adventurous. You step off the back patio into a "meadow" of mosquito (bouteloua gracilis) and buffalo grass (buchloe dactyloides). Though both grasses could be mowed, Sullivan likes them better weeping over naturally. The meadow illusion will be heightened next spring when the African bulbs he'll intersperse this fall begin emerging.

Beyond the meadow Sullivan created a meandering dry creek bed of sand, hemmed in by boulders, which his two children (Matthew, 4 1/2, and Halley, l 1/2) use as a sandbox. Tucked among the rocks are Japanese blood grass, Deschampsia flexuosa, blue wild rye, Carex comans and Briza media.

Against the barn-red walls of his garage, Sullivan planted larger ornamental grasses--several miscanthus, Muhlenbergia rigens and autumn moor grass.

Most of the vegetation in Sullivan's back yard is grass of one kind or another. Such flowering plants as daylilies and kangaroo paw are used sparingly as accents. Yet there is no feeling that anything is missing. The effect is peaceful, natural and decidedly ornamental.

Ornamental grasses are blissfully easy to care for, says Sullivan, and add the rhythm of the passing seasons to the garden. Once you get used to them, he says, a garden without grasses just doesn't seem quite natural.

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