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LANDSCAPING : GRASS MENAGERIE : A meadow's worth of ornamentals includes sizes, forms, textures and colors to fill any garden with blades of glory.

July 16, 1994|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unique among garden plants, ornamental grasses are enjoying a burst of popularity. Used in the right places, they are a bold yet soft gesture. In the back of a flower border, or as a shrub to delineate the outlines of a garden, they show off the wind dramatically and keep their form all year. They bloom--plume, rather--and offer something every gardener delights in: both beauty and hardiness.

"Grasses have the personality, if you will, that adjusts to anything," says Jana Ruzicka, a landscape architect in Laguna Beach. "They're very beautiful, very graceful, very flexible. We can learn a lot from grasses, too, in our own aesthetic sense and also in the attitude we have toward nature; in our appreciation of simplicity. Grasses have a very unassuming nature, and we need more of that."

Today's palette of ornamental grasses includes myriad variations in size, form, texture and color, with grasses available to suit almost any purpose in the garden.

One reason many people know so little about ornamental grasses is that they're usually associated with big gardens at the seashore; in open, prairie-like settings; near a large pool or garden pond, or when trying to create a dense, jungle atmosphere on open acreage.

The good news: They're not all six feet high. As the demand for grasses has gone up, so has the supply, and many of the grasses in catalogues and at nurseries are softer and smaller in scale, more in keeping with the way most people plan to garden.

Long a staple of European and East Coast gardens, ornamental grasses are among the easiest to grow of all perennials. Although the majority prefer sunny sites, they are otherwise adaptable to a wide range of soil, temperature and moisture conditions and are relatively disease- and pest-free. They have fibrous root systems that are very efficient, making most grasses extremely drought tolerant. For the most part, maintenance consists of a once-yearly cutting back, plus the occasional dividing to renew growth vigor.

By gardening with ornamental grasses, Ruzicka says, your focus must naturally shift slightly away from color to such features as translucence, line, form, texture, scale, variegation and seasonal look.

A general rule of thumb is that grasses "should not be placed one here, one there," Ruzicka says. "Look in nature: Grasses grow together, often in between perennials. Usually think in terms of grouping rather than placing."

Grasses, by nature, roam and bend and adjust to their surroundings, so it's hard to make mistakes, though careful observation of nature, along with some professional advice, will help ensure you get the effect you want.

Grasses are particularly effective when back lit by the sun, when their translucent foliage and flowers shimmer and glow best. Although a few grasses are wide-leaved and bold (such as the large-scale giant reed Arundo donax ), most have strong-lined, narrow foliage that provides a stunning contrast to broad-leaved companion plants. In addition, grasses are at their best when intermingled with other types of perennials and with shrubs and trees, much like in native settings. The term "ornamental grasses" contains not only strictly the members of the gramineae , or grass, family, but the sedge (Cyperacae) and the rush (Juncacea) families, as well.

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The whole concept of how grass grows might seem redundant, but consider this: Most grasses in Southern California are mowed and not allowed to grow naturally. When left uncut, unmowed and untouched, grass has a remarkable character, very different from the staple cut lawn.

Mature grass size (usually grown in one to two seasons) can be 12 inches tall, as with large blue-hair grass (Koeleria glauca) , or 12 feet tall, as in the case of giant Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus giganteus) . Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) shoots up so fast that it's said you can hear the plant grow on a hot summer day.

Ornamental grasses can also fit into almost any type of garden. Container gardens, rock gardens, water gardens (grasses unlock a whole new world of ideas for water plant enthusiasts--many species thrive in or near water), wildlife gardens and even cook's gardens. Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) soup is a popular Thai dish, for example.

"A lot of people think grasses are just something that happen naturally--and that's true, to a point," Ruzicka says. "But you need a talent to observe nature carefully and see how the grasses grow best."

The best way to go about finding grasses you like is to purchase or check out a good book that lists, by category, the hundreds of different types of ornamental grasses.

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