Ornamental Grass Preference Trial

The Grass is Always Greener: Consumer Preferences for Ornamental Grasses

by Kim Todd, Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, UNL

Many decades ago, purchasing phones and tennis shoes meant choosing between wall model or desktop, short or high top, black or white. Purchasing grass meant lawn turf" period, with a choice between sod and seed. There were few, if any, grasses for ornamental uses.

Today's landscape consumers are making their choices in an environment with instant global access to information, infomercials, and the products themselves. Their initial interest in a particular landscape plant is as likely to come from popular magazines or the Internet as it is from sound research or good trials. The resulting exposure to the hottest trends or the best media pieces whets consumers appetites for what is new and different" more colorful or a different color, taller, shorter, longer-fowering" sometimes regardless of the appropriateness of the plant for the speci?c condition.

One of the dif?culties, however, is that retailers must either anticipate or create these trends and the appeal of new or different plants in their markets, and pre-order from producers. To further complicate matters, creating, predicting and meeting demand must take into consideration the time required for production, which can take seasons or years despite advances in production techniques and landscape production assembly lines. Missing a trend by either over-anticipating or under-anticipating demand may mean the difference between a successful year and a lean one. And the unpredictability of working with living things, which may not perform as expected at any point in the process, is coupled with increasing expectations by consumers for the immediate grati?cation provided by great-looking plants available year-round in multiple sizes.

Major marketing strategists for large producers of landscape ornamentals such as Bailey Nurseries, Monrovia, and Greenleaf have invested huge resources in attempting to predict and in?uence the behavior of consumers of nursery goods. Placing the "Flower Carpet" roses and "Endless Summer" hydrangeas in brightly-colored containers immediately focused consumer attention on those well-promoted plants, since the industry's standard container color was black or green. In those cases, the containers serve as a visual stimulus that attracts attention to the shrubs even when they are not blooming. Simply getting the consumer to look at the container allows the nursery to provide more information about the plant's characteristics" hopefully resulting in a sale. However, if consumer preferences for speci?c qualities of the plants themselves can be identi?ed, breeders and producers may be able to target their research toward selecting or breeding such traits into plants, with a marketing gimmick such as container color as an extra retail edge. Consumers attracted to the plants for reasons such as color or form can then be taught about the other values of the plants, and retailers can use the combination of consumer preferences and education to promote them.

Identifying consumer preferences for particular characteristics of ornamental grasses may help promote their use. Despite the predominance of the grassland plant communities in the Great Plains, and catchy tourism nicknames for cities such as "The Prairie Capital," the use of ornamental grasses as landscape plants has been slow to catch on in many circles. There may be several reasons for this. People unaccustomed to the performance of ornamental grasses may expect them to be uniformly green and growing like their managed turf, even though their real beauty may not be apparent until well into autumn, when gardeners have run out of time, energy and money. Plant envy may manifest itself in mass plantings of hydrangeas and hollies, helped along by breathtaking images in glossy-covered magazines. A ?rst and lasting impression of ornamental grasses may be of the neighbor's unfortunate attempt at installing a "meadow" in the parking frontage with the wrong plants and well-meaning but ineffective management practices. Grasses may be considered as invaders to be annihilated from agricultural row crops. Retailers who have boldly made forays into the ornamental grasses market by promoting the potential for low-input, multi-season interest inherent in excellent warm-season but still-dormant natives during the height of the spring landscaping season may also have found themselves placing their stock on summer clearance shelves or stuck with gangly, tangled masses of stems in early autumn.

In an effort to gain insight into the preferences of at least a portion of the gardening population, a multi-faceted consumer preference study is underway here at UNL.

The ?rst two phases of the project are providing horticulture production major Jessica Ritter with a hands-on research experience through the UNL Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences (UCARE) program. Goals of the project include identifying for breeders and suppliers speci?c characteristics preferred by consumers, and developing more effective education strategies promoting the purchase and appropriate uses of ornamental grasses.

In 2003, 30 different grasses were donated by Bluebird Nursery. The grasses represented a mix of warm-season and cool-season species, straight species and cultivars, and native and introduced species. The grasses were managed in containers over the summer months, grown on, and over-wintered in a dormant state. In spring 2004, an initial personal survey of consumers was conducted –“ taking advantage of buyers attending the UNL Horticulture Club–s annual sale and using volunteer Master Gardeners to help gather answers to the survey questions. Participants were asked about their prior knowledge of the growth characteristics of ornamental grasses, including their understanding of the difference between cool- season and warm-season grasses, their willingness to purchase dormant grasses and grasses of various sizes for various prices, and whether they were using grasses in their landscape. They were also asked to identify the grasses they were most likely and least likely to purchase, and why. The grasses were then installed in ?eld trials in a randomized block and given minimal care that included only weed control and occasional water. Over the 2004 growing season, Master Gardeners collected data on the quality of the grasses, including their vigor, color, time and effectiveness of bloom and seed head, and overall habit. The data gatherers also commented on their personal (consumer) preference for the grasses as the season progressed and the plants changed character.

In 2005, Bluebird Nursery donated additional species were managed through the winter months in the greenhouse, during which time they were repotted into uniform gallon containers, cut back, and watered and fertilized to maintain their health. Two different consumer groups were sampled in the spring of 2005, using questions from the 2004 survey. The Spring Affair annual plant sale conducted jointly by the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, the UNL Botanical Garden and Arboretum, and State Fair Park was one venue, and the UNL Horticulture Club annual plant sale was another. The majority of the grasses were in excellent –œretail sales– condition, with good top growth. The grasses were then installed in the ?eld adjacent to those established in 2004, also in a randomized block. During the 2005 growing season, data continued to be collected by Master Gardeners on both trials.

A random selection of previous survey participants who had indicated their willingness to help with further research was made in late October 2005. These participants evaluated the grasses in the ?eld, basing their observations on the habit and overall appearance of the grasses. The data gathered from this evaluation will be incorporated into a ?nal report to be presented at the UCARE open house in April 2006. It will also be made available to producers, retailers and consumers.

Initial peeks at the data, and anecdotal comments gathered during open houses and evaluation sessions, reveal distinct style preferences. Some consumers show strong interest in grasses with burgundy, red or purple foliage. Others are attracted to a tidy, rounded form. Still others focus their attention on a wispy, open, ever-moving habit. Those who prefer grasses with dense, shrub-like characteristics counterbalance the preference of the latter. Silky white seed heads are beloved or maligned. And a small but signi?cant group of consumers looks ?rst at natives regardless of other characteristics. In other words, there is nearly as much difference of opinion as there is variety of choice. Nevertheless, trends in preferences are expected to surface as the data are analyzed.

In future years, additional grasses will be added to the ?eld trials and evaluated. The grasses for which consumers show strong preferences will be displayed in visible locations, both as specimens and in combination with other ornamental landscape plants. Educational materials will be developed to further disseminate the results and promote the use of ornamental grasses.