Magazine article Sunset

Wonderful Weeds? Textural Kings of the Garden?

Magazine article Sunset

Wonderful Weeds? Textural Kings of the Garden?

Article excerpt

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. …

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