Wild about grasses

Why have a lawn when you can have a meadow? A passionate grower shares his secrets for using grasses in pots and beds

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  • Creeping wild rye mingles with mixed sedges, including "Carex praegracilis" in Santa Cruz, California.

    Wild about grasses

    Caren Alpert

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Designing with grasses

The secret to composing a meadow in a pot, according to John Greenlee, is simplicity. One fountainlike grass with showy seed heads can hold its own in a pot. Two plants with different textures and heights ― a tall, stiff rush next to a low, fluffy perennial, for instance ― are subtly elegant. A third plant, like a giant aeonium, can add a dramatic accent. The same simplicity holds true for small backyard meadows, he says. Just start with an evergreen groundcover sedge such as Carex pansa to create the framework, then mix in flowers. Add taller grasses in back for variation. Or tuck in a licorice-scented acorus for subtle fragrance underfoot.

"Ornamental grasses are incredibly versatile," Greenlee says. "Pair them with succulents for a Mediterranean look, or with Japanese maples for the look of a Northwest forest opening. Chocolate sedges and Carex buchananii are beautiful with fall color, rose hips, berries. They're great with roses ― they hide the plants' bad knees and bony ankles." Best of all, he says, "they're stellar at providing the natural look."

To get started with grasses, Greenlee offers this advice: Learn the difference between good plants and weeds. Browse through nurseries and look through books, such as Landscaping with Ornamental Grasses (Sunset Publishing Corporation, 2002; $15). Then choose grasses that are appropriate for where you live ― some are frost tender, others can be invasive in some areas. Most grasses are sold as container-grown plants in 1- and 5-gallon cans.

In the ground: Plant in a sunny spot. Grasses tolerate most soils, but adding compost to planting holes gives them an extra boost. Mulch to suppress weeds, and water regularly the first season to establish the roots. In pots: Use large containers (at least 16 inches in diameter and 10 inches deep) and packaged potting soil.

In late February or March, refresh ornamental grasses in pots or in the ground by trimming them back to one-third or one-fourth of their height.

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