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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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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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