Allan Armitage: Three Ways to Market Grasses as Great Ornamentals

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is an upright steel-blue cultivar selected by Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Springfield, WI, that turns a golden yellow in the fall.

Every time I speak with professionals, like the readers here, everyone knows what I am referring to when I talk about grasses. We chat nonchalantly about miscanthus, panicum, and even bouteloua. In our horticultural bliss, we simply believe everyone else knows what we are talking about.

Yet, when I speak to my neighbors, my well-heeled tennis partners, or my daughters’ friends, they have no idea of the diversity of the grasses we breed and sell. The only ornamental grass they know is the stuff they cut.

Now, I don’t expect my friends to know the difference between switchgrass and grama grass, yet I always try to do my best to enhance the visibility of these grasses. And they are becoming more mainstream, albeit more slowly than I hoped for. While grass breeders, growers, and retailers may know the following, here is my take on educating my friends about the usefulness of these herbaceous wonders.

1. Function. My daughter Laura wants to know about their function — beauty is secondary. The most important benefit of ornamental grasses for real people like Laura is that maintenance is minimal. For most of the working Lauras of the world, this is key. They don’t have the time, or desire, to fix plant problems.

‘Blonde Ambition’ is a useless plant if it does not perform well in the garden and should never be offered for sale in the South. If ‘Cloud Nine’ falls over in the front yard of my daughter Heather’s garden, she is either going to have to maintain it or curse it. Cursing will be first. If ‘Hameln’ becomes a weedy mess in three years, or if Northern sea oats eats her coneflowers or yarrow, that is all Heather will remember.

Regardless of names or locales, these truths are self-evident. If a grass is not easy, it will never be ornamental.

2. Invasiveness. If miscanthus grass in North Carolina or ribbon grass in Oregon is becoming an invasive pest, Heather needs to know not to buy them. That is true for wisteria in the south, Bradford pears almost anywhere, and yellow flag iris. No more burying our heads in the sand; let’s confront the invasive problem head on, and let’s not add any more grasses to it. The nice thing is, with a little research, we can find plenty of miscanthus cultivars that don’t seed. Let’s use those, and tell people you are using them. We are breeding non-lodging Panicums, and really, who the heck needs ‘Hameln’ or ribbon grass anyway? Don’t use them.

3. Easy to grow. The fact is that ornamental grasses are easy. Once placed in a landscape, they are handsome, bold additions to my daughters’ gardens and are among the easiest plants for less-than-plant-knowledgeable landscapers to use.

I want my friends to be as conscious about a panicum as they are about a Japanese maple. I want my neighbor to ask me about a good ornamental grass to use, rather than another bloody hydrangea. If we emphasize the functionality and the lack of regular maintenance, I believe we can consistently increase the importance of these plants in our business.

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