Ornamental Grasses for the Cut Flower Trade

I was first introduced to the wide and wild world of grasses while working on a landscape crew in some of Seattle’s most interesting and beautiful gardens. Ornamental grasses had proven to be ideal garden plants and were gaining tremendous popularity in the trade. Once established they were hardy, reliable, drought tolerant and adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. Along with their incredible garden performance I had found grasses to be an interesting and unique floral ingredient in my budding hobby.

Over the next year as my focus shifted from landscaping to floral design, I frantically set out to fill our property with a wide selection of cutting material. Grasses had made their way to the top of my list but as I began to look for information on growing and using them as cuts, I hit a dead end. There are literally thousands to choose from and I had no idea where to begin. Ultimately, I wanted them to fit the same strict criteria I run any selection through: plants must be disease resistant, hardy, somewhat easy to grow, and have a long vase life. In order to find more answers I began visiting local nurseries, often carrying a note pad and stalking the poor employees for more information. I called specialty plant growers, garden designers and emailed experienced cut flower farmers. But still there was more I wanted to know. So finally in an act of desperation, I emailed Judy Laushman for help. She suggested that I write a proposal for an ASCFG Grower Grant. To me the idea was terrifying but if it was accepted I would have the needed capital to test out my idea. So I went ahead and gave it a try. As luck would have it, my grant was chosen and I was on my way to grass heaven!

That spring I ordered plugs from Walla Walla Nursery and seed from Jelitto. To my surprise I was also gifted 7 experimental varieties from Kieft .
Due to an unexpected and extremely inconvenient delay, I wasn’t able to get into my new field in time for planting and the plugs had to sit in their trays until the fall. While nearly all survived, even despite getting very pot bound, it did put the trial a year behind schedule. But instead of writing the entire season off as a loss I decided at the last minute to grow a handful of annual varieties that looked promising. It’s a good thing I did since this patch was a total success! Many of my favorite and most profitable grasses were discovered there.

My farm is located in Washington State, zone 6, on very fertile but sandy soil. I planted the perennials varieties 12-18” apart in double rows, through landscape fabric with one  line of drip per row. The soil was lightly amended with compost and a balanced organic fertilizer prior to planting. I mulched the young plants heavily with a composted horse manure/sawdust mix to discourage weeds and help retain moisture. The annual varieties were planted with the same amendments minus the mulch, on a 9 x 9” spacing through landscape fabric, with 3 lines of drip per bed. All of the plants took off quickly and thrived under this simple treatment.

It immediately became clear that varieties with larger and more pronounced seed heads were the most useable and were better received by designers. While many of the perennials were stunning in the landscape, when cut and bunched they only looked slightly different than pasture grass. I also found that the annual grasses sold much better than the perennial ones. This is probably due to the fact that they typically have a more pronounced bloom.

I work with a small wholesaler who was generous enough to let me tuck buckets of samples on her truck throughout the season for designers to give feedback on. While many florists thought the grasses were beautiful, they were not able to incorporate them into their designs until early fall. This unfortunately was not something that had occurred to me early on when selecting varieties. I had planned carefully to have a constant supply of material throughout the season. It was very frustrating to realize that I had a huge patch of grasses and nowhere for them to go for much of the summer! Luckily I was able to incorporate a lot of the material into mixed grocery store bouquets, but had to be careful of not getting too heavy handed with the grass which caused the bouquets to end up looking “weedy”.

In the spring and early summer I did have designers loving and repeat requesting Stipa gigantea, Achnatherum calamagrostis,Briza media and oats. These sparkly ingredients worked wonderfully in their arrangements. It seemed that the real lull in interest was just during the midsummer.

Originally I had planned to collect detailed vase life information on each variety but soon found that all of the grasses held great if just cut at the proper stage. For me this was right as the heads were emerging from the sheaf, or after the blooms had emerged and shed their little seed casings. If I cut in between these two stages I had to clean each bloom by hand which wasn’t hard, just a bit time consuming.

Due to crop failures at the nursery from which I received plugs, and the stress on remaining plants that had to sit around all summer, I missed out on one of the most important group of grasses, miscanthus. Of all the perennial grasses, these are definitely some of the most useful! They are tough, bloom late in the season, are usable through Thanksgiving, and can be sold dried. At a local nursery during the summer I also saw a young designer incorporating the foliage of the variegated forms ( Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’, ’Zebrinus’ and ‘Cabaret’) into large-scale arrangements with incredible success. When I inquired about their vase life he said “The leaves would hold well over a week with only the tips drying out a little as they aged”. The bouquet I saw was on week two and the drying was barely noticeable. Being able to use the foliage as well as the blooms makes this group extremely useful indeed!

After growing and evaluating over 36 varieties of ornamental grasses, both annual and perennial, I must admit, I’ve totally fallen in love with them! Not only are they easy to grow, adaptable to a wide range of climates and drought tolerant, grasses offer a unique new ingredient in the floral lineup. Any diverse flower farm should consider having at least a small patch of these beauties somewhere on the property. For growers with little capital or room for permanent crops there are many useful and interesting annual grasses available too.

Annuals
Briza maxima, quaking grass     
I love this grass. It’s early to bloom, easy to grow and so unusual. Wonderful in small spring bouquets! Long lasting and the designers love it.

Eragrostis tef, lovegrass ‘Ruby Silk’ 
It’s understandable why this grass has a following. It’s easy to grow, easy to harvest and sells well.

Eleusine, cat’s claw     
Highly productive, extremely easy to grow and long lasting. Unique blooms that are great bouquet filler.

Lagurus ovatus, bunny tails     
A darling little grass that was beautiful in wedding work. I did find it difficult to pick and ended up abandoning the planting early on. Could be useful for growers who do a lot of event work or small bouquets.

Panicum violaceum     
A wonderful, highly productive, long-lasting and easy-to-grow grass. Can be succession sown for extended harvest. I did three planting last season but will increase to 5 for a longer harvest window. The heads resemble miniature drooping, blackish-green sorghum. Great in bouquets.

Panicum ‘Frosted Explosion’     
This was the most productive and profitable grass in the trial. Easy to grow and even easier to sell! We sowed two crops 3 weeks apart and then were able to harvest from a patch of last year’s volunteers, giving us a full summer of bloom. From a 60 ft. x 4 ft. row we harvested 740 bunches and made $1,850. Retail customers and designers loved it. Next year I will try sowing 5 times to extend production through the fall. Direct-seeded plants were slightly taller than transplants. Self-seeds freely.

Pennisetum villosum, ‘Feathertop’     
Very easy to grow and blooms heavily the first year from seed. Wonderful in bouquets and event work, very romantic. Needs to be picked early when heads are just emerging from the sheaf or after the seed cases have shed. Bloomed all summer and into the fall. Well received by designers and retail customers.

Phalaris canariensis     
A beautiful and delicate little grass. Did much better when direct sown, plants were at least 12” taller. A pain to pick and not very useful in bouquets. I used it in a lot of wedding work, though, with great results. Perfect in boutonnieres and corsages.

Setaria ‘Exp. Green Summit’
(Kieft) Massive green millet. Drooping heads that look somewhat similar to green tails amaranth. Blooms all at once so for extended harvest, succession planting is a must. We have jokingly named it ‘grinch fingers’. A conversation piece to say the least!

Setaria italica ‘Exp. Red Jewel’
(Kieft) An easy-to-grow and extremely productive millet. Blooms start out green with a hint of reddish brown and darken with age. I was able to harvest from one planting for more than 6 weeks.

Setaria virdis
(Kieft) The most productive millet I’ve grown yet. Delicate, small green heads on long thin stems that just keep coming and coming! A pain to pick since it’s small and takes it a long time to get a decent-sized bunch. Beware, it self-seeds prolifically.

Perennials
Achnatherum calamagrostis     
The longest blooming grass in the trial, spring through late summer. Stems are the perfect size for bouquets. Extremely productive, easy to grow and beautiful. Designers loved it.

Briza media, small quaking grass     
One of my favorites. Blooms early and is a real showstopper!  Easy to grow, easy to harvest, long lasting and loved by designers.

Calamagrostis acutiflora
‘Karl Foerster’     
Produces huge clumps of foliage that explode into bloom early/mid-summer. My plants had only one flush of bloom. I didn’t like this grass for arranging at all. The blackish-purple wands bleached out quickly to a golden wheat color, which was beautiful but would have been much more useful in the fall. It resembled dead meadow grass. Not a hit with designers.

Carex pendula     
I was introduced to this treasure at Jello Mold Farm. Plants prefer part shade and bloom early in the season. Huge, 4-foot arching stems that are incredible in arrangements! I would assume designers would love this for spring event work, I know I did. Self-seeds freely.

Chasmanthium latifolium,
northern sea oats   
One of my favorites! Wonderful for late season bouquets. Long window of harvest since you can cut at many stages of maturity. Designers loved it.

Cyperus glaber     
A wonderful grass I was introduced to at Choice Bulb Farms. Very productive, great vase life and can be cut over a long season. Perfect for bouquet work when cut young. If stems are left to mature they triple in size. A favorite of market customers and designers. It has very sharp stems so wear gloves when harvesting!

Deschampsia caespitosa      
A wonderful grass that unfortunately bloomed only for a short time in midsummer. Very delicate two-foot wands of simmering gold. Perfect for bouquets and bridal work. Easy to grow although I lost half the plants to rot during an extremely cold and wet spring.

Eragrostis elliotti     
Extremely productive plants the first year from seed. Blooms are gun metal grey and very unusual. Rain easily knocks it to the ground so I would recommend netting or staking this variety. Tough as nails and very easy to grow. Would be great for designers needing something ‘metallic’.

Eragrostis spectabilis     
None of mine flowered, may need warmer conditions.

Melica altissima
‘Atropurpurea’, Siberian melick.   
Incredible texture and nearly black colored wands. Must be picked early otherwise seed drops. Easy to grow from seed. A favorite with designers.

Melica nutans      
The earliest grass in the trial to flower. Must be picked as soon as it’s ready or seeds will begin to drop. The stems look like a delicate string of beads dangling on a curvy wand. Very sweet! 16” tall and flowers for only about 2 weeks.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’
and ‘Strictus’     
All trial plants died.

Molina caerulea ‘Variegata’     
Half the plants died the first year. Very ugly yellow stems with brown heads. Unusable for bouquets and I didn’t even bother to show it to the designers. This variety is headed for the compost pile!

Molina ‘Skyracer’     
Huge (5-6 ft.) beautiful blooms, perfect for bouquets and event work. Green stems with dark purple seeds that mature to a deep chocolate brown.

Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’     Healthy, productive and easy to grow. The most versatile of the perennial panicums. A must grow! Pure silver blooms.

Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’     Healthy, productive and easy to grow. Nice blooms, strong stems, another must grow! Seed heads start out green with a hint or purple and as they open darken to purple. Great in late summer bouquets.

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’     Extremely easy to grow, very productive and beautiful. Tall, sturdy spikes with tiny burgundy seed pods. Great in late summer bouquets.

Pennisetum alopecuroides     
Plants didn’t bloom until late into the second year. Stems too short, ugly flower heads, damaged by rain easily. Better as a landscape plant.

Pennisetum ‘Exp. White’
(Kieft) A fantastic addition to late summer/early fall bouquets. Cut when the heads are just emerging from the sheaf for best bloom quality. Highly productive and useable the first year from seed. They resemble a miniature, delicate, white cattail.

Schizachyrium scoparium,
little bluestem     
All trial plants died.

Sorghastrum nutans ‘Indian Steel’     
Beautiful, tall, steel-colored stems topped with shimmering brown blooms. Perfect color for early fall and great in bouquets.

Sporodolus heterolepsis,
prairie dropseed     
I love this grass! Deep red stems that appear black. Very delicate but holds up well in the rain. Great in bridal and event work that needs a metallic effect.

Stipa gigantea     
The most showstopping blooms in the trial. Huge 4-5’ stems topped with golden needle-like explosions. Great in large spring arrangements. They reminded me of glitter. A must grow!

Stipa tennuissima,
Mexican feather grass    
This grass is unique. It can really bring fall bouquets to life! Stems catch the slightest breeze, creating a magical effect. It got mixed reactions from designers, they either hated or loved it. Useful from early September to Thanksgiving. Can also be dried.


A wide range of high quality plants is available from:

Walla Walla Nursery Co.    
www.northwestornamentalgrasses.com  
(for growers in the West)

Hoffman  Nursery      
www.hoffmannursery.com  
(for growers in the Midwest and East)

North Creek Nursery      
www.northcreeknurseries.com  
(for growers in Midwest and East)

Seed sources: Jelitto, Kieft, Ivy Garth, Geo Seed and Gloeckner.

Erin Benzakein

Floret

Erin Benzakein is the owner of floret, a floral design company and specialty cut flower farm in Mt. Vernon, Washington.
Contact her at [email protected]