How to Grow and Care for Big Bluestem

This ornamental grass is so hardy it can survive fire!

Big bluestem tall grass (Andropogon gerardi) in a prairie.

 CarbonBrain / Getty Images

All hail the king of native grasses—the big bluestem! Native to prairies across North America, big bluestem is used extensively in landscaping, agriculture, and landscape conservation efforts. It is a hardy ornamental grass that can tolerate poor soil conditions, drought, and is even adapted to fire. Big bluestem is not only revered for its functional properties, but it is also grown for its decorative features. This grass adds a pop of color to a landscape all year round—transitioning from bright green in the spring, to a blue-ish green in the summer, and a fiery copper/red in the fall months. Accent a native flower garden with a bunch of big bluestem, or plant it as a border for an open property line—this grass is adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. While big bluestem has traditionally been used in natural landscaping and agriculture, it has grown in popularity among gardeners and landscapers of all kinds and looks good when utilized in modern landscapes and traditional gardens as well.

Botanical Name Andropogon gerardi
Common Name Big bluestem, turkey foot, tall bluestem, bluejoint
Plant Type Grass
Mature Size 10 feet 
Sun Exposure Full sun, part shade
Soil Type Sandy, loam, clay, well-draining
Soil pH 4.8 - 6.9
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Pink inflorescence 
Hardiness Zones 4 - 9
Native Area North America
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) grass seed head.
 Ed Reschke / Getty Images

How to Grow Big Bluestem 

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) is a warm-season, perennial bunchgrass that is native to North America. It grows well in temperate, arid climates with warm summers and cool winters. USDA hardiness zones 4 through 9 are ideal for big bluestem. It is a hardy grass that grows up to 10 feet tall, with thick roots that grow to between 6 to 10 feet deep. Big bluestem spreads through seed as well as tough rhizomes which makes big bluestem excellent sod. In fact, big bluestem was widely responsible for the formation of the famous prairie sod. 

Big bluestem is used extensively in landscaping and in agriculture. Its high biomass and high protein content make it a great forage for horses, cattle, and wild animals. It is also great for erosion control and has become an important part of rehabilitating areas that have been overgrazed or farmed. From July to October, big bluestem sports large inflorescences that become three-part seed heads. These seed heads resemble turkey feet, which led to one of its other common names—turkey foot grass.

Good to Know

Big bluestem has demonstrated that it is invasive in some areas. Be sure to check with your local authorities before seeding big bluestem to ensure that planting this grass in your area is allowed.

Light

Big bluestem grows best in full sun but is adaptable to part shade. This ornamental grass cannot tolerate full shade conditions.

Soil

Big bluestem is found growing in the dry soils of the North American prairies. It is highly adaptable to a range of soil conditions, from sandy soils to clay soils, as long as they are well-draining. Big bluestem also grows well in less-than-ideal soil conditions and can tolerate poor quality soils, soils with a low pH, and shallow soils. This grass cannot tolerate highly alkaline soils or highly compacted soils that are not well-draining.

Water

Established big bluestem grasses are known for being exceptionally drought-tolerant, and big bluestem is even cultivated and sold by specialty nurseries for this feature. As with most seedlings and young plants, big bluestem will require more frequent watering until it has matured. 

Temperature and Humidity

As a warm-season grass, big bluestem grows best in temperate conditions and thrives in the summer months. Warm-season grasses tend to grow best in temperatures between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Interestingly, big bluestem is well adapted to fire and can recover easily from wildfires thanks to the fact that big bluestem spreads via rhizomes.

Fertilizer

Big bluestem does not require regular fertilization and is well-adapted to grow in poor soil conditions. However, applying a nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the spring months can help big bluestem to establish more quickly, which is especially desirable when big bluestem is grown as forage for cattle or other herds. When grown as an ornamental grass, fertilizing is an optional step but certainly not required.

Propagating Big Bluestem

Big bluestem can be propagated through division and by seed (see below for how to grow big bluestem from seed). As a general rule, wait until the grass is mature and established before attempting to divide. Early spring is the best time to divide big bluestem as the grass is coming out of dormancy. Depending on how mature the grass is, the cluster of rhizomes can be very difficult to separate and you may need to use a saw or sharp spade to divide them. Keep any newly transplanted grasses consistently moist until they have re-established.

Varieties of Big Bluestem

There are several cultivators of big bluestem which have been developed for widespread agricultural use and erosion control. 

  • Andropogon gerardi ‘Bison’ has increased cold tolerance and is great for northern climates.
  • Andropogon gerardi ‘El Dorado’ and ‘Earl’ are used as forage grasses.
  • Andropogon gerardi ‘Kaw’, ‘Niagara’, and ‘Roundtree’ are used for game bird cover and to improve native planting sites.

Growing from Seed

Big bluestem readily produces seeds every year, which can be harvested and planted the following spring. Alternatively, big bluestem seeds can be bought from most garden centers and specialty nurseries. Big bluestem seeds have improved germination rates if they are stratified for a month before sowing to help break the dormancy cycle. Then, seeds can be started indoors or sown directly in the garden in late winter or early spring. Sow the seeds at ¼ to ½ deep and keep the seeds consistently moist until they sprout. Be patient, big bluestem seeds can take up to four weeks to germinate!