The Changing Face Of Ornamental Grasses

The airy seed heads of ‘Blonde Ambition’ boost the ornamental appeal of North American native, Bouteloua gracilis. Despite its delicate look, Blue Grama Grass is tough and drought-tolerant. Photo courtesy of David Salman.

The traditional grass palette for greenhouse growers usually includes a few tender selections for color and popular genera like pennisetum, miscanthus and festuca. Those plants are still valuable, and new, exciting varieties continue to emerge. But even more exciting is the changing demand for grasses.

What’s driving this change? It’s a shift from typical visual appeal to an appreciation for grasses’ exceptional qualities. Grasses are good-looking, but they also use minimal resources. They solve common landscape problems, such as soil erosion and intermittent water conditions. They are real workhorses in the landscape. Grasses help to create easy-care landscapes and containers with low water, fertilizer and pesticide use. Another selling point? Deer tend to avoid them.

The advantages of grasses and their allies suggest possibilities for growers. Abe Van Wingerden, owner of Metrolina Greenhouses, Inc., in Huntersville, N.C., sees the potential.

“Grasses continue to be a growth market for us, but not just the typical pennisetums in quart containers we have seen for years,” Van Wingerden says. “We are now seeing growth in different colors of grasses used to accent combination planters and larger 1- to 3-gallon sizes of monoculture containers. Grasses can be used for a variety of decorating and landscaping purposes, and I think we are just scratching the surface of the opportunities.”

Changes In The Landscape
At Hoffman Nursery, we’ve noticed an increase in large-scale plantings using grasses and sedges as groundcovers or alternatives to traditional turf grass. Demand for Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge), with its fine-textured foliage and spreading habit, has exploded. Native grasses like Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) are increasingly used in large masses where turf once roamed. Other grasses and sedges enjoying greater popularity are Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed), Carex flacca (blue sedge), Carex appalachica (Appalachian sedge), and Bouteloua gracilis (blue grama grass).

Landscape contractors tell us there is a shift away from the heavy maintenance burden of turf and color plantings. Many grasses, particularly warm-season prairie natives, are well-adapted to difficult conditions. Fibrous roots systems make them drought tolerant, and once established, most need no supplemental irrigation. Their low disease incidence and adaptation to infertile soils means less need for pesticides and fertilizer. Maintenance and fuel costs decline when mowing is reduced. All this adds up to lower costs and less hassle, and that’s where grasses excel.

In addition to large projects, grasses are appearing more often on small-scale commercial and public sites. And that’s good news. It means consumers see sweeps of grasses at a local office building or tall grasses anchoring a color planting at a shopping mall. They see grasses used in new ways, and it’s catching their attention.
Grasses are also taking on roles usually reserved for shrubs and small trees such as screening and as anchors for large plantings. The upright, eight-foot Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’ creates a strong, graceful presence in the landscape. A faster growth rate and lower expense make grasses attractive alternatives to woodies when the budget is tight.

Looking Beyond The Usual
Two new North American native cultivars show why grasses merit a place in any grower’s program. They offer updated looks and great functionality. Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ is a low-growing, fine-textured grass for full sun. It produces a heavy set of delicate blonde seed heads in the summer. ‘Blonde Ambition’ was named a 2011 Plant Select Winner for its resistance to pests, exceptional performance in low water conditions, retail appeal and long-lasting attractiveness in gardens and containers. It’s also a smart alternative to traditional turf grass in areas with light foot traffic. ‘Blonde Ambition’ has been scarce in the trade as suppliers build numbers, but we expect to see more in 2014.

Another star comes out of a traditional landscape species, Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem). The new ‘Prairie Munchkin’ is compact and upright, with fantastic foliage color. The flower scapes display a mix of silver, pink, blue and maroon in summer, and turn deep orange-red in fall. Little bluestem has been used in naturalistic landscapes, such as meadows and prairie plantings. Yet, the neat habit and showy color of ‘Prairie Munchkin’ work well in formal settings and containers. It’s tough, beautiful and requires no babying. It also puts on a lovely late-season show, giving growers another option for fall sales.

For more color options, growers should consider the wider range of grasses that offer easy care, too. Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) cultivars, with red or blue foliage, are adaptable, drought tolerant and very cold hardy. They’re unexpectedly elegant in large containers and are outstanding landscape plants. But they don’t impress in a quart. Offer them in larger sizes so consumers see the beauty of a mature plant. Panicum virgatum and its cultivars are strong, warm season growers, so potting them up in spring for fall sales works perfectly.

Emerging Sedges
Along with grasses, sedges (Carex spp.) have taken off. They’re appearing on project lists in increasing numbers. North American natives form a diverse group and are adapted to a wide range of conditions. The selections vary in ornamental appeal. Some work best as background plants or in naturalistic settings, while others shine in the spotlight. Regardless, they’re all landscape problem-solvers. Carex pensylvanica, as noted earlier, is a hot ticket for use as a groundcover in shady sites. The demand for it is sparking interest in similar species, such as C. rosea, C. cherokeensis and C. eburnea.

Many Asian sedges make excellent groundcovers and offer a more formal look. They thrive in containers, and most are evergreen. Newer selections for color and splash include the exciting EverColor series developed in Ireland by Pat FitzGerald. These Carex oshimensis selections are knockouts. ‘Everest’ sports narrow, green foliage edged with white and an elegant, arching habit. In production, it’s shown greater vigor than its parent, ‘Evergold.’

‘Everillo’ turns up the visual volume with bright, gold foliage. It promises to be a best seller in the sedge world. Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery is a big fan, calling it, “one of the most exciting shade plants of the last decade.”

Mostly evergreen, the Evercolor series is a smart choice for winter containers in warmer and temperate regions. And they’re a great package for consumers requesting color and easy care.

For showiness and easy production, Cyperus albostriatus ‘Variegatus’ (dwarf striped umbrella sedge) should get a second look. It has unusual, umbrella-like blooms that stand out among foliage plants. The inflorescences emerge from the center of whorled, variegated foliage in a tiny starburst. The look is bright and exotic. Add the size advantage, about 18 inches, and you have a compact, beautiful plant. It’s tender or marginally hardy in most regions of North America, but is well-suited for containers and accent plantings in the landscape.

Open Up To Grasses
Grasses and sedges combine good looks and functionality with low maintenance needs — just what consumers are looking for now. That makes them increasingly valuable for growers. Now’s the time to expand your grass palette.  

Leave a Reply

More From Varieties...
finneran bee on snakeroot

September 28, 2016

Which Annuals And Perennials Are Good For Pollinators?

If you are a grower looking for information on producing plants that are safe for pollinators, or which plant types can be marketed as good food sources for bees, the new publication “Protecting and Enhancing Pollinators in Urban Landscapes” provides a good resource.

Read More
phlox-fashionably-early-flamingo-walters-gardens

September 27, 2016

Walters Gardens Partnering With Darwin Colombia On Unrooted Cuttings

Beginning in spring 2017, Darwin Colombia will offer unrooted cuttings of more than 40 varieties of Walters Gardens’ new genetics, including many popular genera such as Agastache, Monarda, Nepeta, and Phlox.

Read More
Streptocarpus Ladyslippers Grape Ice (Green Fuse Botanicals)

September 27, 2016

9 New Blooming Potted Plants To Jazz Up The Home And Garden

Blooming potted plants are the ideal gift for anyone, from a homesick college student to a spouse in need of some cheering up. Check out nine these new introductions hitting the retail market in 2017.

Read More
Latest Stories
finneran bee on snakeroot

September 28, 2016

Which Annuals And Perennials Are Good For Pollinators?

If you are a grower looking for information on producing plants that are safe for pollinators, or which plant types can be marketed as good food sources for bees, the new publication “Protecting and Enhancing Pollinators in Urban Landscapes” provides a good resource.

Read More
phlox-fashionably-early-flamingo-walters-gardens

September 27, 2016

Walters Gardens Partnering With Darwin Colombia On Unro…

Beginning in spring 2017, Darwin Colombia will offer unrooted cuttings of more than 40 varieties of Walters Gardens’ new genetics, including many popular genera such as Agastache, Monarda, Nepeta, and Phlox.

Read More
Streptocarpus Ladyslippers Grape Ice (Green Fuse Botanicals)

September 27, 2016

9 New Blooming Potted Plants To Jazz Up The Home And Ga…

Blooming potted plants are the ideal gift for anyone, from a homesick college student to a spouse in need of some cheering up. Check out nine these new introductions hitting the retail market in 2017.

Read More
clematis-taiga-feature

September 24, 2016

Plantarium 2016 Honors Winning Novelty Varieties

Novelties at Plantarium 2016 were judged by an expert committee from the Royal Boskoop Horticultural Society.

Read More
mukgenia-nova-flame-terra-nova-nurseries-feature

September 23, 2016

Growers Offer Advice On How To Grow Mukgenia ‘Nova Flam…

‘Nova Flame’ is best brought in as a summer or fall crop and bulked over the winter.

Read More
deutzia-yuki-snowflake

September 22, 2016

Allan Armitage Suggests Plants That “Even My Neig…

When the urge to garden strikes, every homeowner needs a few plants like these for their yard.

Read More
Phlox 'Pink Profusion' (Green Leaf Plants)

September 13, 2016

Aris Horticulture Names Blair Hoey As Managing Director…

Hoey brings more than 20 years of greenhouse production and management experience to Green Leaf Plants, a young plant supplier of perennials serving the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Read More
hibiscus-hollywood-hot-shot

September 12, 2016

New Variety Award Winners Announced At Farwest 2016

A panel of industry experts, as well as show attendees, selected a thornless blackberry and a hydrangea for the top honors.

Read More

September 7, 2016

Check Out The Best Annuals For Attracting Bees And Butt…

Public interest in protecting bees and other pollinators has initiated a new market for flowers that are good food plants for pollinators. Here's a list of annuals Michigan State University Extension recommends that are attractive to bees and other pollinators.

Read More

September 6, 2016

10 Colorful Spring Plants For Sales In 2017

Trends with plants come and go, but color always sells. These spring crops for 2017 offer color choices ranging from bold and vibrant hues to understated, softer tones, and they’re versatile enough to be used in baskets, containers, beds, and borders.

Read More

September 5, 2016

7 New Shrubs And Foliage Plants For Spring Interest

Perennials and annuals aren’t the only plants that supply spring color to the garden. Shrubs and foliage plants also add color and interest and are a great way to round out your spring product mix.

Read More
Janikia Eckert

September 4, 2016

All-America Selections Presents Achievement Awards At I…

Jim Nau of Ball Horticultural received the AAS Medallion of Honor, while Janika Eckert of Johnny’s Selected Seeds took home the Breeders Cup.

Read More
Phlox 'Pink Profusion' (Green Leaf Plants)

August 30, 2016

14 Cool Season Plants To Kick Off The Spring Season

These new cultivar introductions for 2016 are spring bloomers that can take the cold for early-season sales.

Read More
Penn State University Trial Day

August 26, 2016

How Greenhouse Growers Can Broaden Their Horizons

Allan Armitage says you can learn new ideas to help your business when you get out to visit plant trials and other growers.

Read More

August 23, 2016

Kick Spring Sales Up A Notch With 20 New Plant Introduc…

It’s time to look forward to the spring season and what plants will get your business off to the right start. These 18 new cultivars have all the traits of good breeding — uniform habits, bold colors, showy blooms, good vigor, and excellent branching.

Read More

August 23, 2016

Gardens Alive! Parent Company Buys Zelenka Farms

  Zelenka Farms, which has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, says LM Farms, which owns Gardens Alive!, has purchased the company and all of its assets. BFN Operations LLC and its affiliated entities, d/b/a Zelenka Farms, operated one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the U.S. Its products include shrubs, trees, perennials, roses, and groundcovers. The owners of Gardens Alive! have successfully purchased several other companies from bankruptcy and are experienced nursery managers. Niles Kinerk, Chairman of LM Farms, stated that “the opportunity to purchase Zelenka Farms assets and to continue the turnaround that is well underway is exactly the kind of opportunity that we look for. We understand the efforts of the management team led by Eric Ek and others have been successful, and we will support the management team in the coming months and years.” Zelenka Farms operates its six facilities across the key growing regions in the […]

Read More
Coreopsis-UpTickCream-19793-DarwinPerennials

August 20, 2016

Growing Tips On Coreopsis UpTick Series From John Wilso…

Editor’s Note: In this new feature, the Greenhouse Grower varieties team will choose one noteworthy variety each month we think is worth bringing to your attention. Then we’ll share growers’ and breeders’ perspectives on the best ways to produce it successfully at your operation. This month we focus on the hardy Coreopsis UpTick series, winner of Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 Industry’s Choice Medal of Excellence for Breeding. Growing Tips From John Wilson, Seville Farms When asked about producing Coreopsis UpTick, John Wilson says he doesn’t have much to say because it was so easy to grow. Wilson, a Corporate Grower for Seville Farms, says based on the new series’ strong performance during the trialing he has done so far, the nursery ordered a large quantity of the plants for future growing. “If breeders were looking to come up with something that says ‘wow,’ they have done it with the UpTick Series,” […]

Read More
Eucomis arrangement from Golden State Bulb

August 19, 2016

What’s New With Blooming Potted Plants

From exotic orchids and lilies to flashy red cyclamen and jaunty gerberas, new blooming potted plants come in every shape, size, and color.

Read More
[gravityform id="35" title="false" description="false"]