Grasses For The Next Generation

Grasses have been growing in popularity the past two decades thanks to their beauty and functionality in the landscape.

A wide variety of grasses emerged as a solution to a multitude of issues, including extreme drought, growing deer populations, poor soil fertility and extreme heat.

“I would speculate the more widespread use of ornamental grasses in
landscapes over the past 10 or 15 years was spurred on initially by drought and water-use restrictions across the United States,” says Susan Martin, Walter’s Gardens. “Once people saw how grasses thrived under these stressful conditions and how graceful they could look in a landscape setting with little care, more people gave them a try. People love to plant what looks good in their neighbor’s yard, so once they catch on, it’s an easy sell from there.”

Grasses have uses from borders to specimens and masses, as well as in containers for their swaying beauty and stark contrasts to flowered ornamentals.

“They add texture, beauty and elegance to a garden – and mostly they are easy to grow and quite tough,” says Art Cameron, a horticulture professor at Michigan State University and director of the MSU Horticulture Gardens. “Gardeners are now awake to the possibilities. They are the perfect plant group to set off the ‘new American garden.’”

Horticulturist Rick Darke, who wrote “The Encyclopedia of Grasses For Livable Landscapes,” paints a telling picture of the importance of grasses in future lanscapes – and not just for their beauty, either. Many are self-sowing and create more sustainable landscapes, he explains.

“If you believe in global warming, the likelihood is if we look forward 30 years, we will probably have temperatures in the urban East where many of our indigenous plants will no longer be able to tolerate our urban heat,” Darke says. “Miscanthus, for example, is one that will be able to tolerate that heat. There will be a time when we’ll be looking from the global palette for plants that will provide ecosystems.”

And while maintaining ecosystems is vitally important, it’s not the only purpose grasses could potentially serve.

The Beauty Of Function

Grasses have a wide palette of functionality, from creating a screen to keeping out nosy neighbors to acting as a beautiful focal point for visual interest in fall and winter months. They also have more utilitarian uses like filtering heavy metals from industrial sites and the potential to create a sustainable energy source.

Some varieties of grasses, including miscanthus and panicum, are being
investigated as biofuels, which could be an additional revenue stream for growers. Certain varieties also have the ability to sift impurities from water and reduce water use in the landscape.
But not all grasses are made for every region of the country, and a fundamental understanding of what works where goes a long way to helping the grower and the retailer be successful with sales. For example, a plant like Muhlenbergia capillaris (hardy pink muhly grass) is native from the mid-Atlantic Coast to the Gulf but has proven to be a good grower even for California and Santa Fe, N.M. Others, like certain types of reseeding miscanthus and panicum, can be invasive depending on the area of the country.

These grasses, however, can get a bad rap even though they can work perfectly well in many landscapes. It’s only in certain locations that they become an invasive noxious weed.

“It’s important to know the difference between an invasive noxious weed and a native grass where that’s its natural habitat to reseed itself,” says Pamela Straub, account executive for Emerald Coast Growers. “Sometimes reseeding is an advantageous characteristic. There’s a proper use for each grass; the key is knowing what that is.”

Selling For Success

At Emerald Coast Growers, the number one question Straub gets deals with the size of the pot: What’s the right size for a specific plant?

“Often what I hear growers are doing is choosing the wrong grass for the wrong sized pot,” she says. “It’s really important to grow in the right size pot. The longer the pot and shelf life, the longer that grass will remain looking attractive to sell.”

Both Martin and Straub recommend backing up the production and sales cycle of cool-season grasses, too, so retailers are stocked in late spring when those products look their best in pots.

“Even though the main sales window for ornamental grasses is late summer and fall, not all grasses are at their prime during those months,” Martin says. “In general, the earlier you can encourage a home gardener to plant a grass, the more likely their overwintering success will be.”

Examples of cool-season grasses include calamagrostis, festuca and helictotrichon, while warm-season grasses include miscanthus, cortaderia, panicum, pennisetum and others. Warm-season grasses should be ready for late-summer and fall retail sales.

Education is incredibly important to encourage growth in the grass segment, and Cameron advocates creation of point-of-purchase materials and signage to relay the benefits of these plants. Displays can go a long way to show how grasses act in the landscape and in mixed combinations, as well.
One other piece of advice Straub offers is to know your customer and tailor your grasses to their needs. For example, if the customer is a landscaper working with commercial or municipality projects, the answer might be larger specimens, like a version of panicum, miscanthus and schizachyrium, to name a few. Growers who cater to independent retailers may find boutique grasses like types of carex and juncus to be more popular.

One final consideration is the increasing focus on sustainability by younger generations. “They’re super into sustainability and into native grasses,” Straub says of Generation Y. “Breeders are making selections out of native grasses for high ornamental value, and that’s a great way to market a native plant.”

And it seems that greater dialogue about the functionality of grasses is paramount to the success of growers and retailers.

“You have to be able to grow with the marketing of it and talk about their
usefulness,” Darke says. “Any grower simply talking about ornamental grasses are dead in the water because it’s not the future – it’s just part of it. There will always be grasses grown for beauty, but that’s just part of it.”

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