The Grass Isn't Always Greener

Originally printed in “Lemons and Lemonade”  January 1999

“What’s new and exciting?” I hear that every year, and I pass the question along to the people I buy seeds and plants from. I search magazines and seed catalogs for new, exciting material I haven’t grown before, or at least for a while. I’m always trying to please my customers, as they want to see different things, because their customers want different things, too, and these are the people that keep me, a specialty cut flower grower, in business.

Sharing success and failure with other growers has always been the best source of information for something different. It’s cool, how after spending a few days with other growers, you come home with lists of things to try. It’s terrific how some plants grow better here than there. I must admit listening to growers complain that gomphrena is too productive, when I always feel like I really accomplish something when I get only a few stems, is a little hard to take!

I try quite a number of different plants each year, some become essentials that we grow every year, for others it’s just a one-time deal. The space is sometimes not profitable, but other times one trial crop is so good it makes up for all the others that were not – that’s the crop I’m after. Sometimes a good thing happens by accident and sometimes it’s planned.

In 1997 the weather was so bad we were unable to plant some of our land until August 1. I planted ‘Black Tip’ wheat, figuring it might just be a cover crop, but hoping the weather and time would allow a harvest. While the wheat was a bit on the green side, we were able to harvest and sell every stem by early November. ‘Black Tip’ is nice because it matures evenly, and the whole row can be cut at once.

We actually stretched the harvest over two weeks, because we were selling it fresh. With the cool fall weather, it was never over-mature. This year we did succession plantings from early July every two weeks. We were able to sell it all fresh. We also grew wheat ‘Red Head’, which matures a week behind ‘Black Tip’, but it’s just as uniform in maturity. I like both wheats equally. ‘Red Head’ grew about 30 inches tall, and had no lodging. ‘Black Tip’ was 5 feet tall in late fall, with some lodging. Both of these wheats were so uniform they could be cut with a machine and dried. I prefer to sell wheat fresh and I like the late plantings, as fall is the best time to have wheat for sale, without the extra steps of drying it.

Generally, grasses and grains can be direct seeded, and they grow fairly quickly, outpacing the weeds. I often plant some just because they’re easy: no transplanting, no hand weeding, no or very little pests or diseases, and harvesting is fast and generally easy. There seems to be very little competition from other growers on the fresh market. Fresh grasses and grains give the customer something different and special. The only downfall is that, compared to many other flowers, they are low on square foot profits.

This year my favorite new crop was Panicum violaceum, or annual red switchgrass. 1 learned about this grass at the 1997 Portland Conference, and a five dollar packet of seed paid my way to the Raleigh Conference in 1998! It was the most profitable grass I’ve ever grown. It produced many stems and it sold well. It reminded me of broom corn, but was more manageable and more productive, and not as tall. It matured fairly evenly.

After a plume is cut, it sends up more plumes, smaller than the first but still marketable. I did only one planting on June 23, and it was ready to harvest on September 5. For fresh cuts we were able to spread harvest over the whole month of September. It lasts 2+ weeks in water. Looks great with other tall flowers, especially sunflowers. It was done by October, so next year I will do two or three successions to ensure good quality throughout the fall.

I have grown quaking grass, Briza maxima, off and on over the years. It sells best in the fall, as all grasses seem to. It bloomed enough to harvest some 90 days from planting. Though a beautiful grass, it’s time consuming to cut: the stems are short, mature and immature blooms mix and tangle together.

Not a plant to cut on high stress days! I planted it on June 23 and though the plants produced stems all of October and November, I think an early June planting would have yielded more. While Briza has many strikes against it, I like it and feel it’s worth the extra trouble. It looks lovely in arrangements, and people notice and comment on it.

Bromus secaulinus, little sea oats, was also planted on June 23, and harvest began on September 3. It was very uneven in maturing, which provided a longer harvesting and selling window, but it would not be good for machine harvest. We were still harvesting in mid-November, and never had any stems get over-mature, so an earlier planting would have been more profitable. It matured in clumps so we could harvest a whole clump at once with a scythe, which was good, but there was always a decision to make while cutting, as to whether it was mature enough or not, and that takes time. It looked very roadsideia to me, which some people like. The most frustrating problem was that it collected rust very early on. While it wasn’t my favorite, it sold, and I would grow it again.

Grains and grasses planted this late in the season need plenty of moisture to mature into high quality plants. While I did not water these plants, they were planted in peat muck, which has lots of moisture. Planting in drier areas on the farm this later has not been as successful.
These grasses and grains required minimal postharvest handling. We had the best luck using just straight water, in freshly bleached buckets. Some grains break easily when the seed heads are heavy. I bind them in two places if they need it, but stay away from sleeves, as it might be perceived as a dried product.

When most buyers are looking at fresh grains and grasses, they’re thinking “What I don’t use fresh will dry.” While most of it is used fresh for a very specialty look, this customer notion of dual use gives grains and grasses a value-added appeal. Grasses and grains have always been a staple for drieds, and are seldom seen at fresh wholesale markets, but they offer something different and special.