Know Your Market When Choosing Ornamental Grasses

Know Your Market When Choosing Ornamental Grasses

Andropogon gerardii Blackhawks (Intrinsic Perennial Gardens)

Andropogon gerardii Blackhawks (Intrinsic Perennial Gardens)

The cornucopia of ornamental grasses available creates an explosion of choice that doesn’t benefit growers who have little time to spare on plant selection. Out of necessity, product choices must be tactical, and decisions measured. Versatility may be one of the best things ornamental grasses have going for them, but one size doesn’t fit all.

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Begin narrowing your product selection with your end goal in mind, selecting only those grasses that achieve your objectives.

“Pick a strategy,” says Shannon Currey, Marketing Director at Hoffman Nursery, a wholesale supplier of ornamental and native grasses in North Carolina. “When you understand your marketing strategy, along with demand and what is driving your market, you make smarter choices about what plants to grow.”

If you want fall color, add switchgrasses to your crop mix; for shade tolerance, consider grass-like Carex pensylvanica. Do you have a regional focus in mind? Then evaluate grasses based on hardiness and structure, and warm versus cool season. Also, factor in cost, which can be prohibitive if a new variety is patented, says Pamela Straub, Key Accounts Manager at Emerald Coast Growers, a Florida-based operation that has been growing grasses for 25 years.

Native ornamental grasses are popular with younger generations who want something that is highly ornamental but also “responsible.” Andropogon gerardii and Bouteloua gracilis, along with their cultivars, might fit here.

Pollinator-friendly grasses that provide shelter and food for butterfly larvae and other wildlife is another category to consider.

There is no end to tried-and-true grasses to fit any marketing strategy you have in mind. And to grab your customer’s attention, don’t forget to look into the many exciting new varieties of ornamental grasses coming on the market to provide a well-balanced mix for your customers.

One New And One Tried-And-True Grass

Emerald Coast Growers is a wholesale supplier of ornamental grasses, natives, and perennials in Florida. Here are Straub’s top picks of tried-and-true and newer grasses and grass-like plants to grow in various regions.

  • Northwest: Carex ‘Ice Dance,’ Hakonechloa ‘Sunflare’ (new)
  • The High Plains: Schizachyrium ‘The Blues,’ Andropogon ‘Dancing Wind’ (new)
  • Midwest/Ohio Valley: Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster,’ Miscanthus ‘Little Miss’ (new)
  • New England/Mid Atlantic Ocean: Panicum ‘Heavy Metal,’ Miscanthus ‘My Fair Maiden’ (new)
  • Southeast: Pennisetum ‘Hameln,’ Muhlenbergia ‘Fast Forward’ (new)
  • Southwest: Panicum ‘Dallas Blues,’ Muhlenbergia ‘Undaunted’ (new)
  • South: Pennisetum ‘Hameln,’ Festuca ‘Cool as Ice’ (new)

National Ornamental Grass Trials Evaluate Regional Garden Performance

For the last three years, eight regional sites across the U.S. have evaluated 17 cultivars of Panicum amarum, P. virgatum, and Schizachyrium scoparium, using a landscape impact rating scale to rank each plant’s appearance and sustainability limitations. The scale included attributes such as growth habit, lodging, floral impact, winter injury, and disease and insect damage.

Trial coordinator Mary Meyer, a Professor and Extension Horticulturist with the University of Minnesota, is currently analyzing the data and expects to share overall results in late fall of 2016.

Meyer is still compiling the data, but she says a preliminary look shows sites in Florida, Vermont, and Overton, TX, had the greatest losses in plant survival.

“Some of the losses were due to plugs that weren’t happy, and some were the result of warm conditions not conducive for these warm-season grasses to really live that well,” Meyer says. “That was a result we didn’t expect.”

Several of the evaluation sites have already posted their individual results on the National Grass Trials website.

Matt Taylor, Research Manager at Longwood Gardens, says of the panicums, ‘Dust Devil’ was a standout in Longwood’s 2015 trials, while ‘Dust Devil,’ ‘Northwind,’ ‘Shenandoah,’ and ‘Thundercloud’ received high ratings in 2014.”

Colorado State University awarded high marks to ‘Shenandoah,’ ‘Northwind,’ and ‘Thundercloud,’ as well as ‘Dallas Blues.’ Schizachyrium ‘Blue Heaven’ and S. ‘Carousel’ ranked well among the little bluestems.

Check back in the fall for the overall results.