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Marketing Ornamental Grasses

March 6, 2008  By Michael Lascelle

When considering which ornamental grasses to sell, you have to remember
that there are far too many cultivars out there for you to be able to
stock every one, and to try to do so would probably only confuse your

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’ 

Defining Ornamental Grasses
The term ornamental grass not only refers to plants in the grass family (Poaceae), but also includes many others, including sedges, rushes, papyrus (Cyperus) and members of the lily family. For example, Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) and Lily-Turf (Liriope muscari) are both members of the lily family (Liliaceae), while all Carex and Cyperus are sedges, and Juncus are rushes.

Choosing the Right Grasses:
When considering which ornamental grasses to sell, you have to remember that there are far too many cultivars out there for you to be able to stock every one, and to try to do so would probably only confuse your customers. Your selections will depend largely upon your hardiness zone, stock availability and of course, customer demand – which will change from year to year. I generally start with a core of twelve top-selling grasses and add to these about twenty other cultivars or species, for the peak spring season. Here in B.C., we are fortunate to have a number of excellent ornamental grass suppliers, so I also have access to quite a range of pot sizes. Grasses grown in 9 cm pots have really dominated the local market for the past few years, and are now surpassing 1 gal. (15 cm) grass sales. Also popular are specimen grasses grown in 2-5 gallon pots, as these really show the larger Miscanthus, Cortaderia and Pennisetum off well.


The Right Grass for the Right Season:
Ornamental grass sales are also highly seasonal, and stocking the right grasses at the right time of year can be crucial to sales. After all, you don’t want to carry dormant warm-season grasses too early in the year, as these are not likely to generate sales and will only take up valuable space. Perhaps the first thing you need to
appreciate is the difference between
cool-season and warm-season grasses. Cool-season grasses begin growth in early spring, often reaching maturity before the onset of summer heat – some of these will flop or scorch at this time and will require a light rejuvenation prune. Warm-season grasses begin growth in late spring and generally provide their best display from late summer into autumn. Beyond these growing parameters, there are certain grasses, which seem to sell (or have more landscape appeal) at different times of the year. The following is a brief listing.
• Spring (evergreen sedges / rushes, cool-season grasses, planters) Juncus ‘Unicorn’, Milium e. ‘Aureum’, Carex ‘Evergold’, Deschampsia ‘Northern Lights’, Phalaris ‘Feesey’, Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’
• Summer (foliar colour or variegation, cool-season seedheads) Helictotrichon sempervirens, Hakonechloa m. ‘Aureola’ , Pennisetum s. ‘Rubrum’, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, Imperata ‘Red Baron’, Stipa gigantea
• Autumn (fall colour, seedheads, warm-season grasses) Pennisetum ‘Hameln’, Panicum ‘Shenandoah’, Pennisetum ‘Purple Majesty’, Miscanthus ‘Purprascens’ and  ‘Rotsilber’, Pennisetum ‘Moudry’
• Winter (dormant display, evergreen grasses)  Carex ‘Ice Dance’, Miscanthus ‘Blutenwunder’ (dormant appeal), Carex ‘Frosted Curls’, Carex buchananii, Andropogon scoparius ‘The Blues’ (dormant appeal)

Annual versus Perennial:
Not all ornamental grasses are hardy, many are annual in nature or frost-tender. Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) is a very showy, but frost-tender cultivar, which generally does not overwinter in Canada. That said, it puts on an impressive display with its deep burgundy foliage and large rose-purple plumes – just be sure to remind your customers that it will only survive for one summer. Other grasses, such as Briza minor (Quaking Grass), Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ (Purple Millet Grass) and Lagurus ovatus (Hare’s Tail Grass) are true annuals, finishing their life-cycle within one growing season.           

Secondary Sales:
There are two good avenues for secondary sales in regards to ornamental grasses – those being companion perennials and containers for growing specimen plants. Many ornamental grasses grow well in containers, and most are large or distinct enough to be grown as solitary specimens. So suggesting a new container to go with a larger (2-5 gallon size) grass purchase would not be out of place. Similarly, nothing sets off ornamental grasses better than a few well-placed flowering or foliage perennials. This is where a small display garden or prepared mixed planters come in handy, as it is much easier to sell these plants when the customer can actually see the contrast of a mature planting.

Display Tactics & Shelf Life:
Ornamental grasses should not be fully integrated with the perennials – instead, they should be grouped and displayed together in their own section. You may also want to create both an indoor and outdoor display, as many ornamental grasses (such as Blue Fescue) resent being kept undercover for any length of time, tending to rot out or lose their colour when shaded. The indoor / outdoor grass displays will also allow you to rotate plants when necessary. As far as displaying is concerned, I tend to contrast my flats of 9 cm grasses by placing a flat of Black Mondo Grass beside one of Golden Millet, or even Japanese Blood Grass beside Blue Oat Grass. The contrast of both texture and colour helps to draw attention to the product and often results in the sale of both grasses.

Grower’s Tips:
George Feddes of Pepindale Nursery in Aldergrove B.C. specializes as a wholesale grower of ornamental grasses. He was kind enough to offer a few tips for retailers, in regards to improving your ornamental grass sales;
• do not try to display too many varieties at once, as this tends to confuse the customer.
• try to educate your clients (through seminars or signage) about the many potential uses of ornamental grasses in their gardens.
• don’t put your ornamental grasses off into a corner, give them a prominent place and watch your sales increase.
• have a few seasonal grasses strategically placed among perennials or annuals, to inspire combination planting.
• just like perennials, ornamental grass sales will benefit from informative signage (George has just created a new CD, designed to help his retail clients create their own signage).
• larger grasses need ample presentation space and should not be crowded, so your customers can actually see the foliage and form of each variety.
• incorporate grasses into mixed planters, George suggests Festuca ‘Pepindale Blue’, Carex buchananii (Leatherleaf Sedge) and Stipa tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass).
Photos courtesy of Michael K. Lascelle

Top-Selling Ornamental Grasses:
•    Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ / Golden Variegated Hakone Grass (zone 5)
    – a shade tolerant grass with arching golden-striped foliage
•     Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ / Blue Fescue Grass (zone 3)
    – tidy compact tufts of evergreen, steel-blue foliage
•    Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’ / Japanese Blood Grass
    (zone 5) – dramatic blood-red foliage which looks great in mass plantings
•    Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ / Blue Switch Grass
    (zone 3) – an upright habit with powder-blue foliage and yellow fall tones
•     Chasmanthium latifolium / Northern Sea Oats (zone 5)
    – a shade tolerant species with arching stems of pendulous oat-like seedheads
•     Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’ / Variegated Moor Grass (zone 3)
    – arching clumps of green and pale yellow blades, with tiny purple flowers
•     Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’ / Dwarf Pampas Grass (zone 6)
    – this hardy cultivar is compact and quite floriferous
•     Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ / Fountain Grass (zone 5)
    – bold white-fading-to-tan bottlebrush flowers over green foliage
•    Carex ‘Ice Dance’ / Ice Dance Japanese Sedge (zone 5)
    – an attractive evergreen sedge with dark green foliage, edged in cream
•    Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ / Variegated Maiden Grass (zone 5)
    – fine white variegation and copper plumes which show well in the sun
•    Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ / Feather Reed Grass (zone 3)
    – a bold, upright grass with a prominent display of erect seedheads
•    Helictotrichon sempervirens / Blue Oat Grass (zone 3)
    – mid-sized evergreen clumps of steel-blue, with oat-like seedheads

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