Eco-Conscious Landscapes Fast Track The Rise Of Grasses And Native Plants

Eco-Conscious Landscapes Fast Track The Rise Of Grasses And Native Plants

Lurie Garden Millennium Park

The Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago incorporates sustainable design with natives and grasses and includes the world’s largest greenroof.
Image courtesy of Elizabeth M./Flickr.

The demand for grasses and native plants continues to climb in direct proportion to a growing consciousness on consumers’ part that nature-based solutions can help solve man-made problems. Consumers are starting to buy in to the idea that natives and grasses are part of the solution to vexing issues like endangered biodiversity, vanishing wildlife habitats and drought.

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As public perceptions change about what is acceptable in the landscape and as the demand for pollinator forage grows, municipalities and homeowners are turning to green infrastructure and sustainable, low maintenance plants as part of a movement toward well-defined, naturalistic landscapes where grasses, native plants and nativars have a chance to shine.

Landscape Design Is Getting Less Formal
A major influence on public and private landscapes that uses native plants, nativars and grasses is a re-think of traditional perennial design, away from formal landscapes toward more relaxed designs that mimic nature.

Jeff Gibson, landscape business manager for Ball Horticultural Co., says proponents of the new perennial style support a considered approach to the use of natives and non-natives. This provides an opportunity for growers to move the discussion away from natives versus cultivars to the successful incorporation of both.

Gray Infrastructure Turns To Green
Green infrastructure, the use of vegetation and terrain in lieu of pipes and concrete to minimize the impact of urban development on water resources and ecological systems, holds the most promise for grasses, natives and nativars to coexist in the landscape. Green infrastructure (GI) encompasses storm water management, habitat creation, recreational amenities and beautification, which positions growers well to be a strong supply source in this area, as well as a knowledgeable resource.

“This is the next big market,” says Shannon Currey, marketing director at Hoffman Nursery. “We need to think ahead about how to meet the increased demand for natives and grasses that green infrastructure will bring to the market.”

Hoffman Nursery and North Creek Nurseries make concentrated efforts to collaborate and exchange information with those working on GI projects to stay at the forefront of this market. Since the growing criteria and plants needed for GI projects vary, other growers will need to do the same in order to remain relevant in this rapidly growing, highly specialized and competitive marketplace.

“At North Creek, we have an ecological sales department that fosters relationships with municipalities, government agencies and engineering firms to facilitate proper species selection and procure bids,” says Steve Castorani, owner of North Creek Nurseries.

North Creek’s LP50 and LP32 Landscape Plugs product line is ideal for green infrastructure projects because they can be planted directly in-ground for quick establishment and high success rates, Castorani says. The plugs consist of native perennials, grasses, sedges and ferns that are durable enough to tolerate a variety of conditions, all while being resilient in the landscape. One example is Carex emoryi, which works well for built environments and provides wildlife habitat, while remaining tough enough to compete with invasive species.

All-Purpose Grasses And Sedges Provide Crossover In The Landscape
Carex and grasses like panicums, andropogons and schizachyriums, due to their versatility and workhorse potential, are the foundation stones upon which green infrastructure and sustainable landscapes are built.

Versatile grasses like schizachyrium ‘Twilight Zone’ are multifunctional, thrive in a wide range of climates and blend well with perennials, natives and nativars.

Versatile grasses like schizachyrium ‘Twilight Zone’ are multifunctional, thrive in a wide range of climates and blend well with perennials, natives and nativars.


“Native and non-native grasses provide a lot of ecosystem services,” Gibson says. “They slow storm water, provide wildlife habitat and act as groundcovers. Grasses play an important part in the design, providing mass, movement and seasonal change over time.”

For green infrastructure and sustainable landscapes, PanAmerican Seed’s ColorGrass program includes a range of cultivars that perform well in wet or dry conditions, like the graceful eragrostis ‘Wind Dancer’ and juncus ‘Blue Arrows.’

Emerald Coast Growers’ Customer Service Director, Pamela Straub, says she recommends andropogons like ‘Dancing Wind’ and ‘Red October’ for their multi-functional appeal and muhlenbergia ‘Fast Forward’ for ornamental appeal.

Currey says sedges like Carex vulpinoidea and C. squarrosa are hard-working plants in the storm water world and grow in a variety of conditions. She refers to sedges and grasses that use less water and don’t need high fertility soils as “lean plants” because they adapt for sustainable landscapes.

Sustainable Landscaping Requires Careful Plant Selection
At their best, sustainable landscapes sync with the local environment and climate, require minimal resource inputs and appeal to the eye.

“Sustainable landscaping is so much more than plant selection and includes management practices that can incorporate most plant materials, as long as they provide the desired effect with the given guidelines,” says Rick Schoellhorn of Proven Winners’ new products team.

The High Line in New York blends 210 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees in a primarily native, low-maintenance landscape. Image courtesy of Lucas Nebuloni/Flickr.

The High Line in New York blends 210 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees in a primarily native, low-maintenance landscape. Image courtesy of Lucas Nebuloni/Flickr.

With water use at the front and center of consumer awareness, one can hardly think about desired effects in the landscape without thinking about drought tolerance.

Proven Winners, like other breeders, focuses on drought-tolerant plants that require fewer fertilizers, exhibit less disease and have an expanded range of performance. For instance, Diervilla rivularis ‘Kodiak Black’ attracts pollinators and adapts to most soils, while heliopsis ‘Tuscan Sun’ is heat tolerant and puts up with somewhat dry soils.

California-based Armstrong Growers offers a palette of Waterwise plants that are native to the world’s five Mediterranean regions with similar climates. Plants chosen for the collection require much less water and tolerate high temperatures and drying winds.

Consumers should be careful about what they plant in sustainable landscapes, as well as what they do not, says Gary Jones, chief horticulturist for Armstrong Growers, who points to grasses non-native to California that are on eradication lists. Jones says some natives that work well for the California landscape, although not all are native to California, are Bouteloua dactyloides and Stipa gigantea. Also, Carex pansa, which is an excellent low-water lawn substitute. GG