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Meet the 2022 Plant of the Year

Little bluestem is a prairie grass that's making it big in home gardens

Stems of prairie grass
Little bluestem offers a changing palette. It's the 2022
Perennial Plant of the Year. (Photo courtesy Xera Plants)

It’s a native grass ubiquitous to Plains states and much of North America. And according to nursery folks and plant experts, it’s poised to be the hottest plant of 2022.

Little bluestem – also known as Schizachyrium scoparium – is the 2022 Perennial Plant of the Year. The Perennial Plant Association – the trade association representing growers, retailers, landscape designers and contractors, educators and other herbaceous plant lovers – named Schizachyrium and its cultivars its top plant for the new year, based on current trends as well as the plant’s own assets.

As a prairie grass, it’s naturally drought-tolerant and also appeals to the growing interest in natives. It adds instant vertical texture and its wispy seedheads create movement in a landscape. Butterflies love it, too.

But what sets little bluestem apart from other grasses is its many shades of foliage. Some cultivars are distinctly more blue, but others change hues with the season.

“Summer through fall, the slender leaves and stems of little bluestem are an ever-changing kaleidoscope of gray-green, blue, pink, purple, copper, mahogany, red, and orange tones,” said the Perennial Plant Association in its announcement. “Wispy silver-white seed heads sparkle in autumn sunlight and coppery brown leaves persist through winter.

This perennial also mixes well with other landscape plants, notes the association. “Little bluestem is a tough and dependable clumping grass that blends well with perennials such as asters, sedums, coneflowers and other grasses. Native grasses play their part in the pollinator story too. Little bluestem is a larval host for a variety of butterflies and moths such as crossline skipper, Dakota skipper and Ottoe skipper.”

Little bluestem thrives in challenging conditions; in fact, it prefers not to be pampered. In average to poor but well-drained soils, little bluestem stands tall. When it gets too much moisture or fertilizer, its long leaves flop over.

Its only fault? It can’t take too much winter rain. With a lot of water, it tends to just lay down.

The variety that does the best in the Sacramento region is the aptly named “The Blues.”

“This western selection of Little Bluestem has gray-blue foliage and a strong, upright habit,” notes High Country Gardens, which specializes in American natives. “This native prairie grass provides seeds for birds and is beneficial for many butterfly species.”

Added Xera Plants of Oregon, “A fantastic grass that performs wonderfully well in our climate. A clumping grass with very upright blue foliage. In summer, inflorescences rise above the leaves with fine fluffy whitish flowers, providing a dramatic hazy effect. In autumn, the 28-inch-tall grass becomes a whole other color palette. Deep raspberry and purple with tints of red before going over to all reddish orange. ...When dormant, it remains a presence and looks nice through winter.”

Considered easy-care as well as water-wise, "The Blues" little bluestem forms 2-foot-wide clumps and needs only to be “mowed” once a year. Cutting it down to the ground in late winter renews its compact growth.

Expect to see little bluestem come on big in 2022.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Dec. 3:

Make the most of gaps between raindrops. This is a busy month!

* Windy conditions brought down a lot of leaves. Make sure to rake them away from storm drains.

* Use those leaves as mulch around frost-tender shrubs and new transplants.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they're dormant.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Plant one last round of spring bulbs including daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas. Get those tulips out of the refrigerator and into the ground.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers such as California poppies.

* Plant such spring bloomers as sweet pea, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Late fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from fall and winter rains.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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