Sun-loving, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, dependable and year-round interest. Doesn’t this sound like a perfect perennial to add to your garden?
Little bluestem was selected as the Perennial Plant Association’s 2022 plant of the year and is a favorite of many gardeners. The association votes to showcase a low-maintenance plant with multi-season interest, that’s relatively pest-free and can be grown in a wide range of climates.
Native to Illinois and North American prairies, it thrives in sunny locations but grows in a wide range of growing conditions, including poor soil and drought conditions. This grass is often used in native gardens or prairie restoration, and its 5-foot-deep fibrous root system makes it great for erosion control. When used in the landscape, it creates the biggest impact when planted in large groupings mixed with other perennials and shrubs.
Its year-round interest in the garden makes it the perfect addition to any landscape. Little bluestem forms an upright, 1-foot diameter mound, growing 4 to 5 feet tall depending on the cultivar. It gets its name from the fine-textured, blue-green summer foliage.
In August, small flowers turn into clusters of white fluffy seed heads that stand above the foliage. After a frost, the foliage transitions into a gorgeous bronze-orange that persist into winter, adding unique color, texture and interest to the winter landscape.
It is a warm-season grass, so it will thrive during the warmer months of June through September. New foliage will not grow from the base of the plant until the air and soil temperatures warm in late spring. It is low-maintenance and generally has no pests or diseases.
In April, cut back the brown foliage to 3 inches above the soil for the new flush of green foliage to grow. Clumps of the grass can be dug up and divided every few years in the spring. Replant the divisions in a new spot or share with a friend. (Note: if you suspect jumping worms in your garden, avoid sharing divided perennials.)
Little bluestem is also a host plant for nine different skipper butterflies, giving them a source of food and place to lay their eggs. The winter foliage acts as a food source and offers protection from the cold for birds, insects and small mammals.
There are several cultivars of little bluestem, including The Blues with striking blue foliage, Blaze which has bright red fall color, and Twilight Zone, with foliage full of purple and silver shades. Don’t confuse little bluestem with big bluestem which has similar growing conditions but can grow to 9 feet tall.
Past Perennial Plant Association Plants of the Year to also consider are calamint, Japanese spikenard, betony, ornamental onion and butterfly weed.