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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 Feb. 5

Make the most of sunny days and get winter tasks done:

* This is the last chance to spray fruit trees before they bloom. Treat peach and nectarine trees with copper-based fungicide. Spray apricot trees at bud swell to prevent brown rot. Apply horticultural oil to control scale, mites and aphids on fruit trees soon after a rain. But remember: Oils need at least 24 hours to dry to be effective. Don’t spray during foggy weather or when rain is forecast.

* Feed spring-blooming shrubs and fall-planted perennials with slow-release fertilizer. Feed mature trees and shrubs after spring growth starts.

* Finish pruning roses and deciduous trees.

* Remove aphids from blooming bulbs with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap.

* Fertilize strawberries and asparagus.

* Transplant or direct-seed several flowers, including snapdragon, candytuft, lilies, astilbe, larkspur, Shasta and painted daisies, stocks, bleeding heart and coral bells.

* In the vegetable garden, plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers, and strawberry and rhubarb roots.

* Transplant cabbage and its close cousins – broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts – as well as lettuce (both loose leaf and head).

* Plant artichokes, asparagus and horseradish from root divisions.

* Plant potatoes from tubers and onions from sets (small bulbs). The onions will sprout quickly and can be used as green onions in March.

* From seed, plant beets, chard, lettuce, mustard, peas, radishes and turnips.

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