Bunch Grass Cutbacks

Bunch Grass Cutbacks

How, Why, and When to Cut Bunch Grasses: California’s Central Coast

In the Central Coast California Landscape, bunchgrasses are a common landscape element. In some cases, huge swaths of showy grasses can be a bold botanic display of texture, movement, and glowing color. A bunch grass is a perennial grass that forms clumps as it grows. They can be as small as six inches or as large as eight feet tall, usually selected for their foliage and seed head plumage. On the central coast, most species are maintained by a significant yearly haircut to prepare for the next year’s growth.

When to Cut Bunch Grasses

Most bunch grasses are cut back so they look green and fresh for the next growing season, as well as clear out dead foliage and debris for plant health. While some grasses won’t need to be cut back every year, some benefit from being cut back twice or more per year. For yearly cutbacks, the rule of thumb is to cut them back after the last hard frost. Winter foliage can be attractive even if it is brown, and it protects the plant crown from frost damage. If the grass is particularly frost sensitive, the timing should be as late in the winter as possible. In San Luis Obispo County, we tend to be split our grass cut-back timeframes between the beaches (Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Cambria, Los Osos, etc.), the coastal valleys (San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Edna, Nipomo, etc.) and North County (Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, Santa Margarita).

Grass cutbacks can start earliest on the beach zones because they have almost no frost and grasses start to grow even in the winter. December-January is good for most grasses along our beach towns. With the lack of frost, many more species of grass can be grown, such as Pennisetum setaceum rubrum, a beautiful Purple Fountain Grass. “Some grasses won’t show as much winter browning, so skipping their yearly cutbacks from time to time is acceptable. Because the growing season is so long, the window to cut back grasses is also more forgiving. Cutting browning grasses as late as March or April is better than not cutting them at all.”
In the coastal valleys, February is a great month to cut back grasses, but it can happen anytime between January and March. There is limited frost, so grasses such as the Purple Fountain Grass may want to wait until March, but most grasses are completely safe for a February cut. This zone is very similar to the beaches, but it may take a little longer for the grasses to green back up, hence the later cut.

North County of San Luis Obispo County is much different than the rest of the county. The Santa Lucia Mountain Range separates it from ocean influence, making it much colder in the winter. For that reason, the cutbacks occur later to wait for the hard frosts to subside. In addition, most grasses in north county don’t start pushing new growth until April. February through April is the window for north county grass cutbacks, with March being an ideal month. While April is okay, cutting back the grasses after the spring flush should be avoided. While grass species are more limited in North County due to the cold, the explosive growth of the hot summer and the seasonal look of brown winter plumage can be stunning.

The bottom line for timing of grass cutbacks is to maximize the aesthetics and health of the plants. Try to minimize the downtime of a cut back bunch grass stump by waiting until the plant is just about to push new growth. Fine-tune the specific timing for your zone and grasses over the years to maximize your enjoyment of these versatile plants.

How to Cut Back Bunch Grasses

  1. Use sharp shears, pruners, hedgers, or bladed weed whackers to cut all blades and chutes as close to the ground as possible without damaging the crown of the plant.
  2. Hand pull any loose debris or dead plant material to prevent crown rot and allow for more air circulation.
  3. Pull back any mulch or debris at least 2” from the crown of the grass.

Recommended Pruning Heights for Various Species

LOW: 2-4” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Festuca spp., Carex spp., Sesleria spp., Acoris spp., Juncus spp., Nassella spp., Melica spp., Bouteloua spp., Aristida spp., Calamagrostis spp., Muhlenbergia cappilaris, Ophiopogon spp., Stipa spp., Helictotrichon spp., Anemanthele spp., Pennisetum spp. (smaller varieties).
Non-Grass Species: Achillea spp., Zauschneria (Epilobium) spp., Nepeta spp., Teucrium spp., Coreopsis spp., Thymus spp., Erigeron spp., Salvia spathacea.

MEDIUM: 4-8” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Muhlenbergia rigens, Muhlenbergia dubia, Miscanthus spp. (small to medium varieties), Pennisetum spp. (larger varieties), Leymus spp.,
Non-Grass Species: Penstemon spp. (smaller varieties), Artemisia spp., Origanum spp.,

HIGH: 8-12” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Miscanthus spp. (larger varieties), Muhlenbergia dumosa, Cortaderia spp., Kniphofia spp.
Non-Grass Species: Penstemon spp. (larger varieties), Salvia spp. (some smaller varieties), Gaura spp., Lavandula (smaller varieties), Ribes spp., Perovskia spp., Eriogonum (smaller varieties).

Carex divulsa (LOW)

Muhlenbergia rigens (MEDIUM)

 

 

Tasting Room Landscapes in the 2020s

Tasting Room Landscapes in the 2020s

Wineries on the California Central Coast have had their share of curveballs dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, but some have been well-suited to adapt to changing times. The tasting room experience could be considered even more valuable today for its ability to give visitors a relaxed, open-air experience as a respite from the headlines. As a follow up to our 2018 article Five Landscape Design Tips for California Central Coast Tasting Rooms we caught up with two notable winery leaders to see how the landscapes were faring in the pandemic.

In spring of 2020, all wineries were forced to halt in-person tastings for 10 weeks. When wineries could reopen, they were limited to providing tastings in outdoor spaces by and with proper social distancing. June McIvor of Tolosa Winery said they had to reduce their outside capacity somewhat to accommodate distancing requirements and they began offering online reservations in addition to the phone and email reservations they had already been encouraging. The winery shifted lounge spaces to tables and spread them out for proper spacings and reduced maximum group size. The variety of patio spaces and strategically located small planters provided the flexibility to adapt their space and fit people.

June reports the winery is welcoming many new guests from population hubs in Northern and Southern California who are traveling by car to vacation on the Central Coast. Locals and visitors alike are “looking for normalcy” and she feels that the relaxed atmosphere of tasting wine in a beautiful garden patio is greatly appreciated. She remarks, “We are grateful we renovated,” and because of thoughtful pre-pandemic design they are well-positioned to adapt to pandemic constraints.

Damian Grindley of Brecon Estate also had to rethink the outdoor table layout for tastings and reservations and has seen similar success. Surprisingly, he had considered moving to reservations-only prior to COVID-19. The requirement forced Brecon Estate into a reservation system early but with little pushback. He correlates reservations with better customer satisfaction because of a more controllable experience with adequate staffing to the reservation load. Satisfied customers will buy more wine.

The “relaxed Central Coast” vibe of Brecon Estate draws in locals and visitors with the goal of making customers feel welcome and comfortable. As far as the winery renovation and landscape built in the last six years, he says, “we almost could not have designed it better.” The comfortable outdoor spaces and detached outdoor restroom building worked out particularly well for COVID-19 restrictions.

With the respite wineries provide, demand for outdoor tasting room space will continue into the winter. Tolosa Winery has extended their outdoor tasting room season using tents for weather protection. Brecon has room for tents but is considering alternative layouts for patio design with tents in mind. A couple of feet one way or the other can make the difference for a great fit.

With outdoor tasting areas at a premium, savvy wineries will put thought into providing comfortable usable spaces for winter weather.

Here are five tips for wineries that are thinking of renovating their tasting room landscapes to accommodate customers looking for a great experience.

5 Landscape Design Tips for California Central Coast Tasting Rooms

5 Landscape Design Tips for California Central Coast Tasting Rooms

Landscape design plays an important role in the success of your winery. Here is the first of five tips to help build outdoor environments and experiences that positively impact your tasting room.

1. Be Unique and Memorable

Successful wineries develop a unique, one-of-a-kind brand identity. Branding themes can be artsy, luxury, pastoral, mom and pop, contemporary, natural, exclusive, or fun. Wineries often will include a blend of themes to create a distinct tasting experience.

For Example…

Brecon Estate Wines

Driving through the Paso Robles Adelaida zone, you will see many wineries with walls incorporated into their landscape architecture. When we designed and installed the wall at Brecon Estate, we knew it needed to be different from the others. Our Madrone Landscapes team elected to build a serpentine “Andrew Goldsworthy” style wall. This blended a feeling of contemporary oasis in a rustic vineyard setting, making it unique to this winery’s experience. The blend of outdoor open spaces and secluded zones work well and is site specific according to owner Damian Grindley. The contemporary flair combined with the countryside ambiance helps make customers feel at home. Damian describes the space as having a “relaxed Central Coast” vibe that appeals to a variety of customers. As a newer winery, this no-pressure, casual home-style atmosphere is a great way to build wine club membership and allow customers to take part in a new, exclusive experience.

Halter Ranch Vineyard

At another Paso Robles area winery, Halter Ranch Vineyard, the Madrone Landscapes team played off the pastoral farmland experience defined by the historic nature of the site. Kendall Carson of Halter Ranch describes it as an “Elegant Ranch” theme. We used bold masses of showy grasses, large trees, and vineyard connection to emphasize this theme. We also took advantage of the unbelievable view-sheds and wide-open spaces to make it feel larger than life. In some ways the vineyard architecture and vineyard landscape theme are very simple: Wood, stone, steel, vines, and oaks. The first glance at the grounds is stunning and remarkable, ingrained in the visitor’s memory. At closer look, very fine craftsmanship and art keep customers coming back to discover something new.

Tolosa Winery

Located in the Edna Valley near San Luis Obispo, the re-branding of Tolosa Winery was the story behind this landscape renovation. The winery made a very clear decision to make the brand more luxury, exclusive, and high end in both the wine making and the ambiance. As far as landscape, this meant changing over from open lawn areas to smaller intimate elegant areas under full grown olive trees, stone and rock. The environment is high end, but not stiff, and is very comfortable. General Manager, June McIvor describes it as “driving a Ferrari wearing jeans and flip flops.” The re-branding has been a success for the winery and visitors alike.

2. Make it Feel Special

A Special Treat

New and returning visitors to your winery need to feel that being at your tasting room is a treat. This can be described as a “wow factor”, or an unexpected glimpse into the mind of the winery. A variety of approaches can be used, but usually involves integration of unique features. Consider using outdoor art, paving patterns, colorful plantings, showcasing natural settings, or creating areas with a high-end luxury theme. Thoughtful selection of lounge-type furniture or intimate outdoor spaces can give customers a feeling of luxury not found at home. These elements lend well to developing a positive social environment created by your winery following. Kendall Carson (Halter Ranch) says that tasting rooms need to feel inviting, and be in tune with the property and surroundings, but also provide a “special feature” that makes guests want to plan another trip back.  In the end, this translates to more wine sales and more wine club members.

Exclusive

Many Central Coast wineries strive to give their customers a sense of being part of an exclusive club. Since our wine region is relatively new on the map, visitors realize they have found something special, by uncovering a gem in a beautiful pristine area. It will be interesting to watch the trends as the area is quickly gaining notoriety for exceptional wine and lifestyle.

3. Take Advantage of Your Site

Views

Vineyard architecture and vineyard landscapes often take advantage of the natural and agricultural surroundings. Damian Grindley (Brecon Estate) believes there is an intriguing contrast between the native California landscape and the “engineered lines” created by the vines in a vineyard. This look is so iconic that most vineyards will highlight sweeping views of vines and rolling native hills at their tasting room. When you have stunning views on your site, you can “borrow” them by using minimal landscape elements in front of the best vistas, or use trees to “frame” the view. These are great ways to maximize your landscape budget, since views of vines and hills can do much more for you than almost any landscape element.

Shade

Most visitors come to wineries in the summertime, and shade is very important here on the central coast of California. Trees, pergolas, and umbrellas provide cozy, snug areas for people to relax and enjoy the warm weather in a nature’s lounge room. If there are existing large trees, use them to create a natural comfortable area that people will gravitate towards.

Architecture

Often the vineyard architecture is already defined by the theme, so it is important to blend with the architecture of the building as much as the surroundings. Compliment the style with use of hardscape and planting to make the building more impressive. Some tasting room architecture will try and blend into the California landscape, and the landscape design should also focus on the surroundings. Some tasting rooms will be a monument standing out from nature, so the landscape design must emphasize the awe of the architectural form, while transitioning to the surroundings.

4. Create a Variety of Spaces

Entertaining Spaces

Most tasting rooms operate best with a variety of different spaces to fit the different preferences of visitors and functions of the winery. If you desire to host large events, a central large patio can be quite useful. However, most tasting room landscapes are a connection of smaller nooks to provide multiple intimate experiences for a large number of visitors. Also, the space becomes a social environment, not feeling empty with small crowds, and feeling comfortable with large crowds. In tip #2 we spoke about visitors liking a special and exclusive experience. A visitor may achieve this by finding their favorite nook in the landscape and returning to that special spot over the years. Everyone is different, so a variety of spaces, furniture, paving patterns, and shrubbery can break a large area into a successful multi-user experience.

User Experience

Preferences of tasting room visitors have interesting trends. Folks that are new to the tasting room experience like to go up to a tasting bar and stand during the tasting. Research shows that experienced tasting room visitors often prefer to sit down in a lounge-type area. They come to relax and unwind, and they don’t feel they are imposing when asking for drinks to be brought to them. These experienced tasters often buy more wine and are more likely to join the wine club. Wineries know this, and design both indoor and outdoor elements to provide ample comfortable seating. Other wineries provide entertainment areas with games or picnicking room. The bottom line is that comfortable seating nooks sell wine.

Tasting Room Logistics

Tasting room landscapes also need to work for the people operating the business. Often the central hub is the main tasting bar, so it is helpful to have visibility of all tasting areas for the attendants to best serve everyone efficiently. Open connection between indoors and outdoors feels good for the visitor, but also makes it easier for servers to navigate while carrying glasses of wine. It is crucial to speak with the tasting room staff to know how to best orchestrate the activities of the business. 

5. Design for Change

Flexible Space

Along with a variety of spaces, it is important to allow some spaces to be flexible to allow for several different types of entertainment. Damian Grindley (Brecon Estate) says their most useful space is the lawn area under a group of mature trees. He can change it to overflow seating or activities, but also downsize. June McIvor (Tolosa Winery) likes the flexibility of setting-up outdoor serving bars in different zones of the landscape. Kendall Carson (Halter Ranch) has planned countless events, and she believes electrical outlets are important to have all around the entertaining areas. Whether it is for lighting, a tasting bar, or a band stage, available electricity is very useful. It is impossible to anticipate exactly how a space will be used or changed over time. So, we recommend to build-in flexibility of use so you can make necessary changes both easily and cost effectively.

Pleasant Surprises

People like to return to their special tasting rooms, but they enjoy the excitement of small surprising changes. This is especially true at Brecon Estate where the furniture, art and layout has changed over time as the winery evolves and gains notoriety. They have done it for expanding entertainment area, but also visitors enjoy discovering something new each time, further investing themselves as part of the exclusive club that notices the transitions. Even seasonal changes in the new or existing plants can draw visitors back. A visitor may come in summer and hear about the fall color or the spring wildflowers. Often art displays are paired with the tasting experience, offering another product for purchase while changing over time. These features get visitors to come back again and again, always looking for something new.