tammy forrest
RE/MAX First
8820 Blackfoot Trail SE #115
Calgary, AB
T2J 3J1 CA
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John Moore has taken the seed of a green business idea and grown it like a weed.

The 48-year-old farmer from Acme is the founder of Pure Prairie Ornamental Grasses, which now ships its eco-friendly seeds from annual grasses to residential gardeners across Western Canada.

Moore is a featured speaker at the Calgary Home and Garden Show, where he will give several talks on how to use ornamental grasses in landscaping.

"It just shines a different light on something we already grow as a hardy, edible plant," Moore says.

His family has been growing grains and hay at their 320-hectare farm just outside Acme, an hour's drive northeast of Calgary, since Moore's great grandfather, William John Moore, homesteaded a quarter section in 1904.

But it wasn't until he and his wife Lori attended a talk at the Calgary Zoo in 2000 about using grasses to beautify gardens that the idea for a seed-farming side business germinated.

"A lot of the examples they showed looked a lot like the grains we've been growing on our farm my entire life," he remembers.

Before starting their company in 2005, the Moores experimented for a few years with different varieties of heritage grasses and grains -cereal crops, wheat, milling grains and cattle forages -from their farm and from the stock of the late Olds College agriculture professor Buck Godwin.

"Gardening societies from all over kept coming up to the farm to see what we were doing," Moore says.

The modest farmer has high hopes for the cottage industry as a greener way to landscape suburban and urban yards. Pure Prairie Grasses won a GALA (Growing Alberta Leadership Awards) Innovation award in 2008 from Alberta Agriculture. Moore's grasses are grown at the Lougheed House in downtown Calgary.

Though their use in suburban and urban landscaping is still far from widespread, Moore has seen sales of his ornamental grass seeds grow from about 200 packets in 2005 to 6,500 packets last year.

(Seeds are sold in 300-seed packets that include three types of grasses for $6.99. Moore offers four groupings of seeds, such as oat grass, canary grass and safflower online at or at garden centres such as Sunnyside Home and Garden Centre or Greengate Garden Centres.)

"When we started this business, people had never heard of using annual grasses for landscaping. They were all using perennial grasses," Moore says.

"By now though, people in Calgary know what we're doing with annual grasses. It's getting pretty popular."

How different can the grasses be? Some grow a few centimetres high, while others grow a few metres. Shapes vary from bell-shaped oats to broom-shaped Sudan grass and classic wheat heads. Colours range from gold to red, orange or green.

Drought and cold-resistant, these seeds can grow into mature plants in about 60 days. No greenhouse start is required, or even recommended.

"We've been cropping here for over a hundred years, so they're well suited to the prairies," Moore says.

Annual grasses are actually grains or cereal crops that grow without fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. They only require watering after two weeks of extreme hot and dry weather.

"They grow on the plains without any assistance," Moore says. "It's a very fast-growing plant. It will mature in 60 to 70 days. A perennial plant will wait for just the right growing conditions and may take three or four years to establish -if they will even grow on the Prairies at all."

Unlike most of the garden plants at local stores each growing season, Moore's seeds do not start life in a plastic pot filled with potting soil inside a heated greenhouse. Seeds can be shipped in an unheated truck, using just a tiny fraction of the fuel needed to send seedlings.

Moore recommends starting his seeds on the May long weekend in the flower bed where you want them to grow, rather than starting them in pots inside your home.

"It's very important for the grasses to grow against the stresses of the wind and cold to make them strong," Moore says.

Just be sure to plant the seeds in a spot where they can soak up the sun for most of the day.

"Against a building is good if it's south-facing, so they can get extra heat from the building," Moore says.

When annual grasses mature in the fall, they produce seed -a valuable food source for birds such as native sparrows and finches over the winter.

"Even when it's dead in the winter, it looks beautiful."

Come spring, you remove the old plant growth of last year's annual grass. Because the annuals are dead, you can mulch the plant, enriching the soil. Beds that have had annual grasses in them for years will also boost your yard's earthworm population.

"There's a lot of environmental benefits," Moore says. "And the grasses look so pretty."
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