In a meadow mood

Special to The Times

Instead of a trim and neatly edged lawn, Ellen Hoffs grows grasses and sedges in a billowy backyard meadow. It's soft and "furry," as she puts it, and varied enough to be called a garden because there are so many kinds, 30 in all, counting the two that make up most of her Santa Monica meadow.

A rambunctious, relatively low California sedge grows next to an equally feisty creeping fescue, more commonly used to bind slopes together. A rusty old industrial conveyor belt keeps them apart and makes a delightfully springy path through the meadow.

Other grasses and sedges explode from the two meadow-makers, which give this "lawn" a wild and woolly look. There are wispy golden grasses that look like fine hair, stiff rust-colored sedges, gray, blue and Kelly green grasses, even a red-colored sugar cane, which also happens to be a grass.

These are complemented by such grasslike plants as the red-leaved flaxes or the black mondo. Amaryllis and crocus pop up through the grasses to temporarily brighten the seasons. Anything with grasslike foliage is a candidate for this garden. "I love grasses," said Hoffs. "I think I always have. They remind me of the vacant lots in Los Angeles that I played in as a child."

Like her vacant lots, the meadow changes through the year, which Hoffs considers a big plus. In winter the garden is low and nearly lifeless for a short time after being cut back or mowed, but, like the hills, the garden greens in spring and gets brighter in summer. It's most dramatic in autumn when the airy, straw-colored seed heads form.

Unlike a conventional lawn, this garden of grasses and sedges in an area about 20 by 40 feet needs watering but once a week in summer. Four large rotors irrigate it. In winter, the garden hunkers down and needs no irrigation at all. The meadow plants need mowing only twice a year.

Two wild grasses often suggested for meadow-making, Buffalo grass and blue gamma, were considered by Hoffs but rejected because they have long periods of dormancy, while the carex and fescue don't.

A writer for many years, Hoffs decided to study gardening several years ago at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. There she met grass guru John Greenlee and so admired his compartmentalized garden in Pomona, which is filled with grasses, that she asked him to do something similar for her. But two grandchildren inspired her to change plans and put in an open meadow instead of the proposed garden "rooms."

"I wanted to be able to see my grandchildren," she said. And they would have their own version of her now long-gone vacant lots.

She has a collection of ceramic and iron sculpture and found that the art and the grasses set each other off dramatically. The contrast between the delicate grasses and the bold sculpture is pleasingly sharp.

Besides needing less water and mowing than a lawn, a meadow offers additional pluses as well as a few drawbacks, Hoffs said. She thinks fewer weeds tend to grow in meadows and there are virtually no bugs or disease. Grasses and sedges also grow quickly. Her garden looked mature and filled in after just a year and a half.

On the negative side, when weeds do show up, they are more noticeable than in a lawn and must be pulled by hand. Some grasses and sedges creep into areas where they're not wanted or they seed about. Since the grasses grow so quickly, they must be divided often so they don't get too dense.

If you rely on gardeners, they need to be shown how to care for a meadow. And neighbors "may not understand," said Hoffs. They might wonder why you don't mow the "lawn." Her own neighbors have had varied reactions. Some are "charmed" by the meadow, Hoffs said, particularly those who garden themselves. Others ask where all the flowers are. And then there's the man who, after walking around her yard, said he preferred "pretty gardens."

Her original plan was to have the meadow made up entirely of the native Carex pansa, sometimes called California meadow sedge, which grows on sand dunes and coastal plains. But it had to be planted from little plugs spaced about 6 inches apart and, at 85 cents a pop, she decided to plant only half the area with the carex and temporarily seed the other half with $6 worth of creeping red fescue seed.

Three years later she easily has enough of the rapidly reproducing carex to dig some up and plant the other half of the meadow but she has become quite fond of the bright, Kelly green fescue. It's a little harder to manage, she admits, since it is primarily used for covering slopes. Mowing temporarily exposes yellowing blades of grass, but most of the time it looks splendid.

After mowing, the carex "looks as neat as a mowed lawn," said Hoffs. She mows both twice a year, once in summer and then again this time of the year. She uses an ordinary lawnmower set to cut at its highest.

Grasses and sedges are quite similar, as are rushes, and she uses them interchangeably in the garden. If you don't know the difference between these grasslike plants, said Hoffs, remember this rhyme, which refers to the leaves: Sedges have edges; rushes are round; grasses have nodes that go down to the ground.

There is one significant cultural difference. Most grasses must be cut down in winter or they will accumulate too many dead leaves and quickly look ratty. Hoffs cuts hers to within 6 inches of the ground. Sedges (Carex), on the other hand, resent cutting back. To remove the dead leaves comb them out with your fingers.

Rushes are still another story. She doesn't recommend them since the kinds she tried became quite weedy, spreading or seeding where they were not wanted.

The bronzy Carex buchananii, which sprouts from the fescue meadow, is a favorite. The dramatic blue oat grass also does best when the old leaves are combed out; cutting it back could kill it.

Big clumps of the spiky native deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) spring from the native carex, and the two could make a handsome and dramatic meadow by themselves. Other favorite grasses include the Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), which looks a lot like tufts of flaxen hair and can seed around a bit. Another is a grass with the wispiest of purple-tinged seed heads and the odd name of purple muhly (Muhlenbergia filipes). Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) from southern Arizona looks like a small bamboo and it's another gem.

But her favorite of all is a tall switch grass named Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine,' which she ordered from Digging Dog Nursery, a rare plant specialist in Northern California. It stands bolt upright and grows to a towering 8 feet tall, with dramatic seed heads.

Hoffs is so pleased with the meadow in back that she is now eyeing her front lawn. Perhaps she'll plant a mixture of grasses there as well. All she has to do is divide the plants in back and she'll have plenty.

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