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...

February 4, 2016

Poinsettia Growers Discuss Their Recent Trials And Triumphs

Growers from Pennsylvania, Illinois, and North Carolina describer their experiences trialing everyone’s favorite holiday season flora.

Read More
Rhododendron ‘Dandy Man’ (Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs)

February 2, 2016

Spring Meadow Nursery Partnering With Proven Winners Europe To Introduce New Flowering Shrubs

The expansion creates a cohesive brand for what is now a global market, immediately introducing more than 24 shrubs to the European market, with the potential for 125 or more in the future.

Read More

February 1, 2016

12 New Poinsettias For Holiday Growing

Poinsettias are still a consumer favorite during the holidays for home décor and gift giving. For greenhouse growers looking to get a jumpstart on purchasing young plants for the 2016 poinsettia growing season, there is no shortage of great varieties to choose from. Here are 12 new varieties to keep in mind for holiday product offerings.

Read More
Latest Stories

February 4, 2016

Poinsettia Growers Discuss Their Recent Trials And Triu…

Growers from Pennsylvania, Illinois, and North Carolina describer their experiences trialing everyone’s favorite holiday season flora.

Read More
Rhododendron ‘Dandy Man’ (Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs)

February 2, 2016

Spring Meadow Nursery Partnering With Proven Winners Eu…

The expansion creates a cohesive brand for what is now a global market, immediately introducing more than 24 shrubs to the European market, with the potential for 125 or more in the future.

Read More

February 1, 2016

12 New Poinsettias For Holiday Growing

Poinsettias are still a consumer favorite during the holidays for home décor and gift giving. For greenhouse growers looking to get a jumpstart on purchasing young plants for the 2016 poinsettia growing season, there is no shortage of great varieties to choose from. Here are 12 new varieties to keep in mind for holiday product offerings.

Read More

January 27, 2016

Costa Farms’ Season Premier Provides Sneak Peek A…

Costa Farms presented the 2016 Season Premier at its 2-acre Trial Gardens in Miami, FL, in the third week of January. The event showcases varieties from breeders of all sizes to growers and major retail buyers, providing a look at what genetics are coming to the market and how they’ll perform in retail settings and in the landscape, when consumers bring them home. The mild winter climate in South Florida allows Costa Farms’ Research and Development Department to simulate the spring growing conditions of various regions in the country. Because each group of visitors to Costa Farms’ Trial Gardens wants to see what the new plants look like in the environments that matter to them, Season Premier offers several areas within the Trial Gardens that highlight different ways to look at the wealth of new varieties. The New Product Showcase offers a way for retailers to see how plants will […]

Read More

January 26, 2016

Beekenkamp And Danziger Partner To Distribute Poinsetti…

Danziger is continuing to expand its portfolio of products to the U.S. market with the addition of poinsettia cuttings of Beekenkamp’s varieties.

Read More

January 24, 2016

Positive Consumer Experiences Help Advance The Orchid C…

HGTV HOME Plant Collection plans to expand its Fresh Style product line through a partnership with Green Circle Growers (Oberlin, Ohio), which will supply decorative orchids, tropical plants, and indoor garden combinations. Greenhouse Grower asked Maxwell Sherer about Green Circle's orchid program, the latest trends he’s seeing, and where he thinks orchid growing is headed in the future.

Read More
Sansevieria in Corner of home

January 21, 2016

Tropical And Indoor Foliage Plants Emerge As A Lifestyl…

Consumers are incorporating houseplants into their everyday lives, which is driving the trends toward smaller-size plants and unique products that appeal to a younger demographic.

Read More
Pollinator-Conference-NC State

January 20, 2016

How To Promote Pollinator-Friendly Plants This Spring

Following last year’s launch of the National Pollinator Garden Network, groups like the National Garden Bureau and others remind growers that offering pollinator-friendly plants is a great way to keep up with consumer demand.

Read More
Caladium Painted Frog Series (Plants Nouveau)

January 17, 2016

16 New Foliage Plants To Round Out The Garden

Every garden needs a good mix of flowering and foliage plants for an attention-grabbing show of thrillers, fillers, and spillers. These new foliage varieties will not only act as a lush backdrop for colorful blooms, they can also stand on their own with their noteworthy textures and colors.

Read More
California Coast

January 13, 2016

Mark Your Calendars For The 2016 California Spring Tri…

It’s time to think about registering for the 2016 California Spring Trials. You won’t want to miss any stops along the way, so use this quick reference to help with planning for your trip.

Read More
David Roberts Bailey Nuseries Feature Image

January 12, 2016

Bailey Nurseries’ David Roberts Says New, Novel Varieti…

Roberts was recently hired by Bailey Nurseries to be the General Manager and Breeder for Plant Introductions, Inc., which Bailey acquired last year.

Read More
Kelly Norris - feature

January 11, 2016

Kelly Norris: Questioning The Purpose Of New Plants

Norris asks if the time has come to rethink new plant introductions, or how we market them to consumers.

Read More
Weeks Roses Miss Congeniality

January 11, 2016

Weeks Roses Introduces New Lineup Of Roses For 2016

Weeks breeds and grows a wide range of rose bushes, all of which are field tested for many factors.

Read More
CAST2015_Floranova_Vegetalis_Ageratum Cloud Nine Blue

January 8, 2016

Floranova Opening New Chile-Based Research Station, For…

Floranova has announced it is building a new research station in Chile that will open in mid-2016. As a result, the company will not participate in the 2016 California Spring Trials, but says it will be back in 2017.

Read More
Streptocarpus 'Yellow Blue Eye' (Green Fuse Botanicals)

January 5, 2016

15 Flowering Foliage And Tropical Plants For The Home A…

Tropical and foliage plants are the ultimate lifestyle plants because they enrich the environment and provide mood-boosting benefits. Take into account some of these new introductions for a crop mix that helps your customers realize the true benefits of plants.

Read More
BallSeed-WebTrackToGo-app Feature Image

January 5, 2016

Ball Seed Launches WebTrack To Go App For Mobile Phones…

The app is available for free in the Google Play and iTunes app stores, and serves as a companion to Ball’s full WebTrack business management system.

Read More
Terra Nova Garden Decorating Guide

December 31, 2015

Terra Nova Nurseries Releases New Garden Decorating Gui…

The guide’s wheel-shaped design groups new plants by color and was inspired by the Pantone Matching System color guide.

Read More
Northwest Horticulture offers four different mixes of sedum tiles for green roof projects. Photo courtesy North West Horticulture Feature

December 29, 2015

Growing Succulents Never Goes Out Of Style, Here’…

Succulents are more popular than ever, and with good reason. Learn why these tough, low-maintenance plants are a hit with consumers and deserve a place in your greenhouse, then check out the accompanying slideshow for the latest in succulent trends.

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