Japanese forest grass on display at A.J. Tomasi Nurseries
PHOTO COURTESY OF A.J. TOMASI NURSERIES

There’s really nothing like tall grasses waving in the breeze. Some change colors with the seasons. They also provide a crucial habitat for birds and pollinators. Tanya LaCorte has been buying perennials at Reems Creek Nursery for 10 years, and she’s no stranger to the appeal of ornamental grasses.

“It adds a lot of texture to the garden,” she says. “It has the movement. It’s got winter interest if you choose not to cut them back. People that don’t have larger areas still could incorporate some of the smaller grasses in their yards just to add that different texture.”

LaCorte, the North Carolina IGC’s perennial manager, says the grass category has been growing steadily for the last two years. And in 2020, native grasses outsold non-natives almost three to one.

Ornamental grasses are the No. 1 category at A.J. Tomasi Nurseries in Pembroke, Massachusetts, above hydrangeas and even Knockout Roses. Bill Murray, garden center and nursery manager, says it’s been a gradual climb over the last several years. Grasses were seen as a cheaper option than shrubs, and as more grasses started showing up in landscapes and more consumers saw the product in their neighborhoods, interest was piqued.

Grasses are popular throughout the New England coast, because you go over the island of Nantucket and you see grasses — not necessarily the same grasses, but the look is coveted. American beachgrass is one of the tough native grasses that can be found along the coast. It’s available at some retailers and from wholesale nurseries like Hoffman Nursery, in Rougemont, North Carolina, which is known as ornamental grass specialists. Shannon Currey, Hoffman’s marketing director, has been brainstorming ways for Hoffman’s IGC customers to understand the benefits of ornamental grasses. The industry has been much more successful at speaking to designers and landscapers and large commercial institutions about grasses than it has with consumers and homeowners.

“People struggle with how to use grasses,” Currey says. “The biggest sell to me for a homeowner is the versatility of grasses as a group. Grasses can be fantastic as groundcovers, for accents. What can these plants do for your yard?”

Versatility is the buzzword. IGCs can position grasses as the Swiss Army knife of the horticulture world. Take Panicum virgatum, a switchgrass that has a long history in the trade. Currey suggests showing ways to use it in displays or signage with POP. Play up the polarizing nature of its strengths. For instance, switchgrass is the rare plant that excels for xeriscaping and in dry areas for drought but is also good for wet areas. You can use it in a rain garden because it can handle both wet and dry conditions.

“It’s an accent plant for mixed plantings, so if you’re interested in pretty for the design aspects, you can use it in big sweeps or if you’re trying to naturalize and have a meadow or prairie garden, it fits in there,” she says. “If you have a slope or a place you can’t mow, Panicum is great for that sort of planting.”

Run through the roles these popular grasses can play in your customers’ landscapes. It all comes down to helping them solve their specific landscape challenges.

Teaching moments

IGCs can turn ornamental grasses into big sellers, but they have to be prepared to educate their customers a bit. At A.J. Tomasi, many customers come in looking for seagrass. Murray sets them straight. Seagrass won’t survive at all on the coastline. However, many customers have that misconception.

To be successful, most ornamental grasses need good soil and lots of water — especially, at first. Many grasses are drought-tolerant and don’t even need regular water once established. But that takes years. He’s also noticed an uptick in customers wanting to buy ornamental grasses for containers. However, Murray says you should set expectations for the customer that they will have to water those containers every day, and they may not survive the winter.

“I talk until I’m blue in the face about water,” he says. “Because I don’t want to be giving their money back. I’d rather have them be happy and buy other plants next year. That’s why I stress it.”

Pair ornamental grasses with perennials to showcase both.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOFFMAN NURSERY

Murray tells customers that even in his IGC, they can’t keep some grasses as irrigated as they should. He’ll point out the frayed look at the top and tell them it’s an indicator. And it will get progressively worse, so when you see it, increase the water.

A.J. Tomasi sells ornamental grasses ranging from 6 inches to 10 feet tall. Some of the fully-grown specimens are part of the landscaping displays at the IGC to show the customer what they will look like down the road. Murray likes to bring grasses into the nursery as big as he can, but New England has a short growing season. Grasses don’t really start taking off in Massachusetts until Memorial Day. So he buys grasses from Greenleaf Nursery in North Carolina to give his grasses a solid head start on the growing season.

“When they come in on Memorial Day, they’re already 4 feet tall,” he says. “That sells huge with people looking for the instant. And they’re not cheap. Some of the 5-gallon sell for $60 each and some people use them as hedges, buy 11 at a time. They never buy just one.”

The multiple buy for grasses happens a lot, and that’s why this green goods segment turns quicker than any other at A.J. Tomasi.

Ornamental grasses were always part of Reems Creek Nursery, but they weren’t an exciting part of the plant offerings at the Weaverville, North Carolina IGC. After a viewing of Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, LaCorte was motivated to unlock their potential.

Instead of cordoning the grasses off in their own section, she began incorporating them into designs on display tables with perennials. Within the separate sun and shade areas, she’d pick plants that work well together and mix them. By giving customers ideas about how to use these plants together, she soon found she was selling not just grasses or perennials to a customer, but both.

“In our busy season, there’s never enough staff to help all the customers,” she says. “So the more that we can set up to help sell products by themselves, the better for us.”

To that end, Reems Creek uses copious amounts of signage to help attract customers to the grasses. They are later to emerge than other perennials, with a shorter growing season. POP and other marketing materials can help show grasses in a better light.

“We’ll have them in the pot growing, but they don’t look very inviting, they’re not very tall, they’re not doing their full thing that they would do in your own garden if you had them,” LaCorte says. “So a lot of times we’ll put pictures, laminate them and attach those with the plants. So people can see, even though it’s maybe only 6 or 8 inches tall now, that this is what it will look like. That has been really big help. It helps people see what is to come.”

Steven R. Tomasi, president at A.J. Tomasi Nurseries, developed his own custom signage. Each sign is printed on white vinyl in a 7- by 11-inch format which fits snugly into galvanized bed marker signposts. Each informative sign shows the attributes of the plant as well as its requirements; the full yellow circle represents full sun, the lighthouse states the plant is seashore tolerant.

This display includes fountain grasses, feather reed grass, blue sheep’s fescue, pink muhly grass, blue zinger sedge, Amazon mist sedge and switchgrass.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOFFMAN NURSERY

In the upper Midwest, The University of Minnesota partnered with MasterTag to create marketing materials that helped retailers boost sales of native grasses.

The labels are designed to help consumers know what they are buying, how grasses benefit native butterflies and how they require few inputs such as water or fertilizer. These marketing materials, developed with a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the USDA’s Specialty Crop program, can help growers and their independent garden center customer sell more grasses.

Minnesota has a complicated pollinator label law, so two labels were developed — one showing butterflies and one without butterflies (for any plants that may have been grown using neonic pesticides). MasterTag made labels in two sizes, a smaller 1.7-inch by 5.25-inch stick tag and a larger 3-inch by 7.65-inch hang tag. Additional educational materials include a two-page Native Grass Guide that can be printed and attached to the store sign or poster.

The posters, tags and labels are available here: bit.ly/grasstags.

Red switchgrass on display
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOFFMAN NURSERY

Which grasses to stock

Maiden grass is one of the more popular grasses at A.J. Tomasi. Also, dwarf fountain grasses like Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ are in high demand, especially in commercial settings, because of its smaller stature. All perennial ornamental grasses prefer full sun, but Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra, craves the opposite. That trait makes it unique, as well as another top seller.

“When you want a grass in a shady area, it’s perfect,” Murray says. “It’s beautiful too. It comes in multiple varieties, but the ‘All Gold’ is probably the most popular.”

Hakonechloa, or hakone grass, also differs in size and shape from the other top grasses. It grows about 1 to 1.5 feet tall and forms a clumping, cascading habit.

Murray says he doesn’t do much merchandising for the grasses because even at $40 to $50 for a 1-gallon container, they sell themselves. However, there is an eye-catching display at the IGC that uses a mature Bradford pear tree to showcase perennial shade plantings underneath its boughs. The Japanese forest grass was planted there five years ago, and each year when it comes up and shows customers what they can expect of a full-grown Hakonechloa, the sales start rolling in.

At the end of the year, when she’s reviewing high sales and deciding what plugs to order for next year, natives come first with LaCorte.

Fescue, sweet flag, feather reed grass and northern sea oats
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOFFMAN NURSERY
Grasses on display at Reems Creek Nursery, including little bluestem, muhly grass, blue fescue
PHOTO COURTESY OF REEMS CREEK
Ornamental grasses are the No. 1 category at A.J. Tomasi Nurseries in Pembroke, Massachusetts.
PHOTO COURTESY OF A.J. TOMASI NURSERIES

For smaller grasses, Schizachyrium scoparium, commonly known as little bluestem or beard grass, sells well at Reems Creek, especially ‘Standing Ovation.’ Big bluestems are also popular and LaCorte sells quite a few Andropogon gerardii ‘Blackhawks.’

Muhly grass and Prairie dropseed are two of the most popular medium-height grasses.

“Those are two that have a very fine texture,” she says.

Carex and heuchera
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOFFMAN NURSERY
Reems Creek Nursery displays a variety inspired by the work of landscape designer Piet Oudolf.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOFFMAN NURSERY
Tanya LaCorte with Panicum grass
PHOTO COURTESY OF REEMS CREEK NURSERY
Native grasses on sale during the fall
PHOTO COURTESY OF REEMS CREEK NURSERY
Grasses in a beautiful retail display
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOFFMAN NURSERY

For customers looking for taller grasses between 3 and 5 feet, like the Panicum virgatum switchgrass, her top pick is ‘Shenandoah.’

“The beauty of that one is it takes that gorgeous red color coming into fall,” LaCorte says.

For even taller grasses, in the 5-to-8 feet range, Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is a best-seller.

Matt McClellan is managing editor of sister magazine Nursery Management.