Ornamental grasses have it all — beauty, versatility, adaptability — and then some. With striking new colors and showier flowers, they present growers with the perfect opportunity to offer a real value item to their customers.
Plus, widespread cultivation and consumer demand means availability is better than ever. Jim Nau of Ball Horticultural Co. points out that the availability of more interesting ornamental grass varieties from seed means the ability to produce in smaller-than-normal pack or pot sizes. “Growers appreciate the flexibility of being able to buy plugs, which in turn makes grasses more readily available to landscape contractors,” Nau says.
In addition, you’ll also want to make sure you’re up-to-date if you tend to stick to the tried and true.
To that end, Susan Martin of Walters Garden urges growers to take the time to learn about recent introductions because the market has seen significant changes over the past decade in genera like pennisetum, panicum, andropogon and schizachyrium.
Ornamental Grasses Are Perfect For Containers
Containers aren’t just for flowers anymore. With a little creativity, ornamental grasses can be stunning alone or grouped together in just the right container.
Pamela Straub of Emerald Coast Growers says ornamental grasses biggest benefit is the visual effect they add to containers with their cascading foliage and varied textures. She suggests unique combos such as juncus, acorus and carex, and pennisetum and sedum. For single-grass containers use P. ‘Fireworks’ pennisetum and ‘Prairie Blue’ schizachyrium.
“Size and form matters when combining grasses with other plants, keep in mind how the grass grows,” Nau says. “Consider how the grass spreads at the top, not just at the base of the plant. Pick the right container for the grass and its companions. Match more vigorous, open varieties with equally vigorous plants.”
One common issue with combination containers is timing. Scott Epps of Hoffman Nursery says warm season grasses can be slow to get going in early spring, especially if it is cool. Fast-growing annuals can overtake the grasses before they have a chance to take off. Epps advises planting a larger grass, using a smaller annual plug or delaying planting by a couple of weeks.
For containers, Epps recommends two cool season grasses for their small size and great color. Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ and Arrhenatherum elatius subsp. bulbosum ‘Variegatum.’ Additionally, try Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ for exceptional performance in low-water conditions.
Ornamental Grasses Suitable For Almost Any Landscape
In addition to making great container plants, grasses are an excellent choice for the landscape, especially in low water areas.
Allen Bush of Jelitto suggests grasses like Saccharum ravennae for height, Stipa tenuissima for broad sweeps and Sporobolus wrightii for an accent plant.
Other notable grasses include pennisetum ‘Desert Plains,’ which can be used for a focal point in a sunny landscapes and schizachyrium ‘Standing Ovation,’ a tough performer that keeps a tight, upright habit through most of the season. For a mid-summer flush of purple-mauve color, try schizachyrium ‘Twilight Zone.’
Ornamental grasses have also become a viable alternative to water-loving varieties in the landscape. Some grasses actually look their best and perform better, once established, in dry land situations than in regularly watered landscapes, according to Chuck Pavlich of Terra Nova Nurseries.
Jeff Gibson of Ball Horticultural Co. adds that consumers are using more drought-tolerant grasses to replace traditional lawns. “This trend will spread nationally and should not be underestimated, even in places like the upper Midwest and the Great Lakes,” Gibson says.
Proven Winners’ Rick Schoellhorn sees potential for growers to create a niche for themselves by offering more grasses that take the shade, especially dry shade, because recent outbreaks of downy mildew in impatiens have created a gap in consumers’ shade selections, causing them to branch out and explore new landscape options.
Luzula sylvatica ‘Solar Flair’ is a great option for mixing with perennials in partial shade areas, while Milium effusum ‘ColorGrass Flashlights’ will brighten up any low-light area with its eye-catching chartreuse foliage.
And don’t forget native grasses. Peggy Anne Montgomery of American Beauties Native Plants says natives such as Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind,’ Sporobolus wrightii ‘Windbreaker’ and Muhlenbergia capillaris (Hairy Awn Muhly) increase biodiversity in the landscape and provide habitat for all sorts of wildlife.
Sedges — A Grass-Like Trend Gaining Momentum
Another landscape option that is not really a true grass, but still falls solidly in the ornamental grass category is sedges.
“A big trend in the grass world is the increased use of carex as native groundcovers to reduce the amount of mulching,” says Carrie Wiles of North Creek Nurseries. “They have excellent functionality in the landscape, address a number of landscape problems and are a great choice for low maintenance gardening and less watering.”
Wiles recommends Carex vulpinoidea and C. comosa for phytoremediation projects, stormwater management, erosion control and salt tolerance. Fox sedge is also deer resistant. C. pensylvanica is excellent as a groundcover in shady areas, as a background planting for shade-loving perennials or for soft texture in containers. For standout color, try carex ‘EverColor Everillo.’
Explore The Possibilities
By knowing which grasses work best in containers and those that are best suited to various landscape situations, growers can increase their market edge substantially. They need only explore the possibilities.