Plans for next year's garden

In the Garden

Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener


     We have passed the winter solstice and daylight hours are growing a bit longer with each passing day.  As we approach a new year, we begin making plans for the next year’s gardens.  It is also a time when horticultural companies and plant societies release their prize-winners for the new gardening year.  Unfortunately, I cannot buy every single plant to trial at Sandhill Gardens, so I have to read up on all of the selections to make informed decisions about which ones merit the purchase price.

     Many of the feted plants are new introductions—cultivars that have been bred and are just being released for sale.  Such plants are often difficult to find for sale and are often quite pricey.  However, one special group names a “plant of the year” that is a tried and true plant.  That entity is the Perennial Plant Association, made up of produces, sellers and writers in the horticultural trade.

     For 2022, the Perennial Plant Association has named Schizachyrium scoparium as the Plant of the Year.  Better known by the common names of beard grass or little blue stem, this native ornamental grass is already a proven performer in most parts of the United States and Canada.  Depending on the  cultivar, this warm-season, clumping grass grows two to four feet tall and around a foot wide.  The plumes may add another foot when the grass blooms in late summer.  The silvery-blue color of the stems gives rise to the common name, little blue stem.  The coloring is especially apparent at the base.  After an autumn frost, the stems turn a coppery red and continue to add color to the landscape through the winter months.  The plumes may be white, silver or gold, depending on the cultivar.

     As is the case with many clumping grasses, little bluestem has a long, extensive root system.  Once established, it is quite drought tolerant.  Deer do nibble on the foliage, but it usually responds with new growth, so the grazing is not a major problem.  The deep roots also mean that it flourishes in infertile soil.  There is no need for fertilize this grass, as fertility triggers rapid, weak growth, resulting in flopping.

     Little bluestem may be grown from seed or from dividing a clump.  However, unlike many grasses, it rarely dies back in the middle of the clump, so it does not have to be divided often to retain form.  Its architectural form lends itself to many uses in the landscape.  A row of little bluestem clumps makes a nice informal hedge to surround taller grasses or other prairie plants.  It combines well with black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, yarrow, tall sedums and other pollinator-attracting plants.  While, like other grasses, little bluestem is pollinated by wind and not insects, there are some moths and butterflies that use the foliage as a host plant.  Little bluestem may also be used as a specimen plant among shorter flowers and is a great thriller plant in mixed pots.  It is also a great edging plant around pools or ponds.

     Although a native, there has been a lot of breeding to get bluer color and more up-right form in little bluestem.  The Perennial Plant Association members have recognized the cultivars ‘Jazz’, ‘Standing Ovation’, ‘The Blues’, ‘Blue Heaven’ and ‘Carousel’ as being outstanding for habit, foliage and fall color.  Sometimes, specific cultivars are a little harder to locate, so I recommend an internet search to locate    the ones you desire.

     I do plan to add some little bluestems at Sandhill Gardens.  I hope to plant some along the pathways in the wildflower meadow.  I also want to use some to add some contrast to borders featuring low-growing groundcovers.

      When a plant is recognized as the Plant of the Year, most garden centers put it on their order forms, so little bluestem will likely be fairly easy to find this spring.  Buy some and experiment with it.   




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