How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Little Bluestem
Liven up your landscape with the ornamental grass little bluestem. This tolerant plant can handle poor soils and dry spells and shows gorgeous colors from spring through fall. In this article, gardening expert Kaleigh Brillon explains how to keep this grass happy.
You may associate grass with lawns and lawnmowers, but ornamental grasses bring elegance to any landscape. Little bluestem is a type of ornamental grass with silvery-blue-green foliage in the summer that turns to gorgeous autumn tones as temperatures cool.
This is the perfect plant for bare patches in stubborn flower beds. It doesn’t require much in terms of soil quality, nutrition, and water and thrives where other plants can’t. Too much nutrition is a bad thing for this grass, so you won’t even have to try to care for it.
Let’s look at how to successfully grow this gorgeous grass so you can use it in your landscape.
‘Schizachyrium scoparium’ Overview
Plant Type Grass
Native Area Eastern North America
Hardiness Zones 3-9
Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Height 1-5 feet
Watering Requirements Low
Soil Type Well-draining sand, loam, or clay
Pests & Diseases Caterpillars, leaf spot, root rot, rust
Little bluestem, or Schizachyrium scoparium, is known by many names: beard grass, bunch grass, and creeping bluestem. It was once scientifically known as Andropogon scoparius, but after some debate, it was eventually classified as its own species.
This ornamental grass is native to North America throughout the continent. It’s most common in the eastern US but can be found in every state except Alaska, Oregon, and Nevada. It also spreads as far north as Quebec in Canada and down to southeastern Mexico.
The grass thrives in poor conditions that run on the dry side. You can find it naturally in prairies, meadows, pastures, planes, the edge of woodlands, and in hilly areas on slopes. You can easily grow this plant if you live in USDA zones 3-9.
Little bluestem might seem incorrectly named if you see it in the fall. It turns warm hues of red and burgundy with white fluffy-looking seed pods on the end. But it lives up to its name in the summer with shimmering silvery foliage that looks bluish-green.
It can grow up to five feet tall in ideal conditions, though it’s often around three feet tall. Tall plants may flop over, which isn’t ideal along pathways, so keeping them shorter is better. It grows in clumps up to two feet wide. They rarely need to be divided but can easily be done for propagation.
This trusty perennial blooms from June to December and reseeds itself relentlessly. It’s not recommended for small areas where you don’t want it to spread. However, it’s good to plant if you have erosion problems since it will spread and keep the ground covered.
Though it is a grass, it’s an important plant for pollinators. It’s a host plant for several butterfly species, so expect to see many eggs and larvae all over the plant. It’s a great addition to pollinator gardens or open spaces near your edible garden. It also houses small animals like birds and protects them in the winter.
Little bluestem was bred to achieve different things over the years. It’s a popular grass choice for pastures, and you’ll likely see ‘Camper,’ ‘Cimmaron,’ ‘Pastura,’ and ‘Aldous’ in the fields because of their foliage production. Although they’re still pretty, they aren’t the best options for ornamental value.
Cultivars bred specifically for ornamental value include ‘Itasca’ and ‘The Blues.’ If you like what ‘The Blues’ offers, which is deep blue-green foliage that turns purple in the fall, ‘Jazz’ is essentially the same thing but reaches a shorter overall height.
‘Blaze’ was also bred for pasture purposes, but you’ll find it in landscapes due to its stunning fall colors. It starts red and turns pink throughout the season. Since it’s a pasture cultivar, you can expect this one to grow a lot, with each clump reaching up to 15 inches in diameter.
Planting is relatively simple, thanks to the easy-going tendencies of this perennial. Unless the conditions are too wet or shady, your grass will quickly settle in and call its new place “home.”
Transplants will have a better survival rate when planted in the spring. They’ll have the entire growing season to acclimate and let their roots get anchored in the ground to survive winter. Plants planted in the fall may not have enough time to get fully established and may not make it through winter.
Choose a sunny, well-draining location for your transplant. Dig a hole the size of the clump, place the plant in the hole, and backfill it with soil. Water it well, and keep it lightly moist for the first few weeks. Don’t allow the soil to become wet; skip watering if it’s moist on the top layer.
Growing from Seed
A little warmth will go a long way with seeds, so if you can keep them warm, you can grow them. You can start them indoors and transplant them outside, or start them directly outdoors.
To start seeds indoors, choose a well-draining seed starting medium and fill seed starting trays. Plant the grass seeds ¼ inch deep and cover them. Keep the seeds in an area consistently at least 50°F, using a heating mat if necessary.
Keep the seeds moist, but don’t allow the soil to be wet. This grass can’t tolerate excessive moisture. Once the seedlings are about two inches tall and the temperatures outside are warm enough, you can transplant the seedlings outside.
To sow seeds outdoors, wait until nighttime temperatures are at least 50°F, just as you would starting them indoors. Ensure the area you choose drains well and has full sun exposure. Plant the seeds ¼ inch deep, or scatter them and lightly cover them with soil. Keep the area moist, and the grass seeds will germinate quickly.
You can start the seeds in spring or fall. If you choose a fall planting, ensure the plants have plenty of time to get established before the first frost. Starting them indoors will give you extra time before moving them outside in early fall.
You can grow it in containers rather than in the ground. This setup will work well if you don’t have an in-ground area with sufficient drainage or sunlight.
Choose a container with drainage holes so excess water can drain, and fill it with coarse soil. Plant seeds or transplants as directed above. Container grass isn’t much different from in-ground grass; the needs are the same, but you may have to water the container plant more often since it drains and dries out faster than the ground. Despite this, ensure you don’t overwater your plant—it’s still possible!
How to Grow
This species won’t throw too many challenges at you, making it a good option for out-of-the-way areas you don’t often tend to. A little neglect won’t hurt it; in fact, too much love is a bad thing for this plant.
Provide as much light as possible. This sun-loving plant needs at least six hours of full exposure but will do better with more.
Tall ornamental grasses can flop over when unhappy. Little bluestem can tolerate partial shade, but the possibility of flopping over increases.
Your grass won’t need much water since it’s native to well-draining areas that can occasionally be dry. You’ll probably only need to water it once each week or not at all if it rains consistently in your area.
Too much water will lead to flopping, and wet conditions will kill the plant. It won’t grow well in areas that are prone to puddling. Make sure water can drain away quickly, and if that’s not an option, water it only when the ground is dry.
Water near the root system when possible, or water at a time of day when the grass will quickly dry. Fungal diseases are spread by moisture, so keeping the grass dry will prevent them from spreading.
You almost don’t need to think about soil requirements with how tolerant this grass can be. I’m exaggerating, but it really can grow in a wide range of conditions. Though it will be happier in light, well-draining soils on the sandy side, it can also thrive in loam and tolerate clay.
Clay soil holds a lot of moisture, so you’ll need to be careful about how much water the grass receives, especially when the plants are young. Loosen clay soils before you plant seeds or transplants so that the tender roots can grow through the soil more easily.
While many plants need rich soils, this one doesn’t care. Nutrient-rich soils will help the plant grow taller, and while this is a good thing, the plant will flop over because it can’t handle its own height. Soils on the infertile side will give you shorter grasses that stay upright instead of sprawling ones that flop over.
Fertilizing is almost always a no-no for this tough ornamental grass. Fertile soil won’t need extra nutrition, so if you start your plant with some compost, it likely won’t need anything else for the rest of the year. Infertile soil may need a boost in nutrition, but don’t do too much.
If you need to fertilize, choose something low in nitrogen. Nitrogen boosts foliage growth and will cause the plant to flop if it gets too tall.
You won’t need to do much maintenance for this grass. It will benefit from being completely cut back to two to four inches at the end of winter or the beginning of spring before new growth appears. This will help it look more visually appealing, but more importantly, it will help promote new growth.
Clumps typically don’t need to be divided, but you can do as needed if you want to keep plants small or want to propagate them.
If you don’t want the plant to spread, consider removing the seeds before they fully develop. Cutting the plant back during this time isn’t recommended since it’s still the peak growing season, but gentle pruning will help you maintain the plants to prevent them from taking over the flower bed.
You can easily propagate through division or by seeds. Both methods are simple, and you won’t need much effort to make it happen. It’s a win-win!
Little bluestem grows in clumps that can be divided. You can divide the clumps at any size, but choose the biggest clumps so you can have fuller plants from the start. The plants don’t need to be divided to be happy, so you can do it or skip it as you wish. Divide the clumps in early spring to give the transplanted portions the entire season to grow.
The division process may seem rough, but the roots will be strong enough to handle it. Take a shovel, spade, ax, or another sharp garden tool and carefully dig it into the clump where you want to make the separation. Ensure each clump has a good set of roots to support the plants.
Dig your tool deep into the ground to get through the clump. If you’re using a shovel, use your foot to put your weight on it to make it easier. Taking smaller bits off the sides may be easier than going through the middle of stubborn clumps.
Once the two clumps are separated, backfill the mother plant so all of its plants are covered. Follow the instructions for transplanting I mentioned earlier for your newly propagated grass clump.
Harvesting seeds is usually done on a commercial scale with specialized equipment, but you can do it at home. The process requires patience, though; you probably won’t want to do it for large-scale projects.
The seeds come in hulls with fluff on the end, much like a dandelion seed. You’ll need to remove the fluff and extract it from the hull, a process called “de-bearding.” Wait until the seeds are fully developed; small seeds don’t always plant successfully.
The fluffy ends make it easy to tell when your grass has gone to seed; the hairy white ends are a tell-tale sign. Collect the seeds by hand, de-beard them, and allow them to dry completely before storing them in an envelope or air-tight container.
Plant the seeds as directed in the Planting section, and you’ll soon have new plants!
Harvesting and Storage
This ornamental grass is meant to beautify your landscape and not be eaten—at least not by you. Many cultivars were bred for livestock grazing in pastures or cut and dried to use for hay. Livestock and grazing pets like rabbits may appreciate having some homegrown hay. (Check with your vet to ensure little bluestem is a safe snack for your pets.)
To turn your grass into hay, you’ll need to cut it in early summer when it’s most nutritious. Waiting too long will cause the plant to lose nutrients and won’t be as beneficial to your animals.
Cutting it early will also prevent seeds from getting mixed into the hay, which you would need to pick out so the animals don’t eat them. Allow the hay to dry in a cool, dark place.
This easy-going grass shouldn’t have many issues. There are a few you need to look out for, however.
The most common issue you might see is flopping, also called lodging. Flopping is when the grass falls over rather than stands up due to improper conditions. It can be a sign of too much water, insufficient sunlight, or excess nitrogen in the soil. It’s visually unappealing, can become a tripping hazard, and may increase the risk of diseases, but ultimately, it isn’t a major issue unless you’re waterlogging your plants.
Inadequate growing conditions are another source of problems. Since the grass is native to dry areas, too much water will quickly become bad. Make sure your plants have good drainage and won’t puddle or flood. They also need at least four hours of sunlight at a bare minimum but will look their best when they get around eight hours.
There aren’t any major pests that bother this plant. However, they’re a host plant for several butterfly species, so you’ll see plenty of eggs and caterpillars on them. While this isn’t technically an issue because they’re beneficial pollinators that help you in the garden, they could become pests if you don’t want them around.
If these bugs are bugging you, consider growing extra grass so there’s enough for them to munch on. You can also pick them off by hand and relocate them to other plants; additional ornamental grasses in a pollinator garden will greatly help you.
Your grass may develop a few diseases. They aren’t sickly plants that will get infected often, but they can catch whatever else is in the garden if the environment is too wet. They typically develop diseases in late spring or early summer.
Root rot is a common problem for this grass since it needs dry soil. Prevent it by providing the plant with well-draining soil. Sandy soil or a sandy loam will work well, and avoid using clay soil in areas prone to puddling.
If your plant develops root rot, remove and discard the infected portion. Root rot can’t be reversed, but you can correct the problem by amending the soil or transplanting the unaffected portion to a drier area. Be sure to plant this species near plants with similar needs so keeping them appropriately watered doesn’t become a balancing act.
The plant may develop various fungal diseases spread by your other plants, like leaf spot and rust. These diseases are common for all ornamental grasses and can spread through plant debris, irrigation, and wind. Remove infected grasses and clean tools between handling different plants.
Tangle top is a fungal disease unique to little bluestem. The ends of the foliage become distorted, and the entire leaf will develop a black line down the middle. It won’t easily spread, but you will still need to discard infected parts of the plant. Dry conditions and airflow between plants will prevent the disease from spreading.
Little bluestem is a gorgeous ornamental grass that will add interest to your landscape all year. Though it will beautify your property, you can also put it to work in your edible garden. It’s a valued pollinator plant that attracts beneficial insects like butterflies to the garden. Keep this plant dry in a sunny location, and you’ll have pretty grass to enjoy all year long.