Ornamental Grasses: Fall back in love all over again

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A once passed over category is getting new life with exotic, colorful, and low-maintenance new varieties, and homeowners are taking notice. You should, too!

July 21, 2021

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Think it’s the same old same old when it comes to ornamental grasses in 2021 and beyond? Think again. When I tapped some of my industry friends to see if there was anything interesting on the grass horizons, my inbox was filled to the brim with enthusiasm. There are some exciting new options shaking up the world of grasses, as well as evolving approaches to design that are driving demand.

When author Kelly D. Norris responded to my ornamental grass query, the title of his reply was “get your ass to grass class.”I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell you that, but it seemed like appropriate advice for us all. When you live where I do (Dallas, Texas), a big grassland prairie, ornamental grasses have long been a fixture in our cultivated landscapes. Unfortunately, in Knockout Rose fashion, Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) seems to have taken over as the monoculture planting du jour, (not to mention it spreads like wildfire). You can imagine that some of us — as well as many consumers — have more than enough of the same old grasses in our rear-view mirrors. Admittedly, I might not be paying as much attention to this category lately as I once did.

So, what’s the trick to getting everyone back to grass class? Just as with plants for pollinators and wildlife, we need to make the case that grasses are more than just offer “low maintenance” landscape fillers. “The wonderful thing about grasses and grass-like plants like sedges nowadays is that they sell for even more than ornamental reasons,” says Norris. “I think consumers increasingly value grasses for what they do — filter runoff, provide habitat for birds and insects — while also appreciating their movement, architecture and forms.” These are incredibly important marketing tools that should be infused into all our consumer conversations.

In Norris’ new book New Naturalism, he shares his inspiring, ecologically sound vision for home gardens created with stylish yet naturalistic plantings. Beyond educating home growers about the collateral ecological benefits of growing grasses, we still need to inspire them to grow grasses in ways that feed their aesthetic desires. Norris’ book does a wonderful job of it.

Stand-out species

I asked Norris to share a few of his favorite species and cultivars he thinks will resonate with home gardeners:

“Andropogon gerardii ‘Holy Smoke’: The latest in a parade of recent, excellent introductions from Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens. This may be the sultriest color yet with black and pink stems that morph throughout the season for a banner autumn finish.

Eragrostis spectabilis: For hot, dry, gravelly areas where disturbance is present (think hellstrips, driveways, even gardens around playgrounds), you need a grass that can roll with the punches. Cold-hardy and durable across a broad swatch of the U.S., this cotton candy treat in late summer and fall works hard and looks good doing it.

Panicum ‘Bad Hair Day’: A recent hybrid from Chicagoland Grows and Chicago Botanic Garden’s Dr. Jim Ault, this hybrid between P. virgatum and P. amarum maximizes the beauty and versatility of both species with a graceful fountain of rich blue color from early summer through autumn. Perfect for bioswales, downspouts and big enough to make an architectural statement on par with most shrubs.”

I also tapped Hoffman Nursery marketing director, Shannon Currey, for her most exciting new recommendations. “Our newest cultivar of little bluestem, Schizachryium scoparium ‘Chameleon’, is really snazzy,” says Currey. “It’s a green-and-white striped selection that develops beautiful pink and burgundy tones across the season.” Currey says she thinks this new selection is fun, different, and will fit in even in highly managed landscapes. Other big Hoffman news? Currey also whispered in my ear that they’ve got an exciting new selection coming from Piet Oudolf in 2022.

Get grains

Another brilliant horticulturist and author, Brie Arthur, is a master at blending the ornamental and edible, and encourages growers and home gardeners to get outside of their comfort zone with grasses. I checked in with her on new niche opportunities for growers. Arthur recommends turning to grains if you want to grow out of the box when it comes to conventional ornamental grasses. “Grains offer an additional ecological service: bird seed! Barley is an excellent option for cool season interest. Millet and sorghum thrive through the summer heat. Rice is ideal for wet locations, including pots with no drainage holes.”

In her dynamic book Gardening with Grains, Arthur offers up unique design inspiration for incorporating these beautiful edible crops just as you would ornamental grasses. Arthur tells me she’s seeing growing consumer interest and demand for these hard-working grains. I’m planning to give the rice pots a try!

You heard it first

Currey also let me in on the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) 2022 Perennial Plant of the Year winner…an ornamental grass. Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium and its cultivars, have nabbed this coveted spot amongst perennial pros. This is an unusual choice notes Currey because the award covers more than one selection. Promoting all the cultivars, instead of just the species, will allow the PPA to provide better regional guidance on the little bluestem cultivars that work best in your area.

“For Hoffman Nursery, having this native grass as PPOY is fantastic and fits with our continued focus on making public spaces greener” says Currey. “We’ve been promoting green infrastructure for a long time, and between the pandemic and climate change, there’s increased appreciation of green public spaces and their role in health and well-being. A native grass that has low maintenance needs and high ecological value is a natural choice for the future.”

Good looks, environment-friendly, easy care, and edible...looks like it’s time for me to fall back in love with ornamental grasses.