How to Grow and Care for Millet

millet

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Millet (Pennisetum glaucum), commonly called pearl millet, is an ornamental plant used to add height and a splash of color to gardens. The plant is leafy with an upright growth habit, producing long, slender deep purple foliage, stems, and flower plumes that look like a cross between a purple cornstalk and cattail. Plant this fast-growing grass in the late spring or early summer when the soil is consistently warmed to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If you leave seed heads on the flower spikes to mature and dry out, your backyard birds will have a feast on the seeds, which look like little pearls, as millet is a popular grain used in bird seed mixes. Read on to learn how to use purple ornamental millet in your landscape design.

Common Name Ornamental millet, pearl millet, cattail millet
Botanical Name Pennisetum glaucum (also known as Cenchrus americanus)
Family Poaceae
Plant Type  Annual ornamental grass, tender perennial in warmer climates
Mature Size 4-6 ft.
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Evenly moist, well-draining
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time July to September
Flower Color Dependent on cultivar, green to purple
Hardiness Zones 2-11 (USDA)
Native Area  Africa
millet detail

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

millet used in a landscape

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

millet in a garden

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Millet Care

A major reason why ornamental millet is such an attractive option for landscapes is how easy it is to grow and maintain. The plant tolerates high salt, high/low soil pH, can be grown in infertile soil, and has the ability to withstand dry weather and harsh sun. Adding to all those benefits is the fact that it is a bird smorgasbord and you have a grass that is a winner in any landscape.

Light

All cultivars of Pennisetum glaucum thrive in full sun. The plant will tolerate partial shade, but won't look as dramatic in its color.

Soil

Ornamental millet is a tolerant plant. It can sustain itself in drier soils and drought. It prefers good drainage as it has some issues with becoming waterlogged. Salt levels and pH balance is not an issue for this plant either.

Water

Pennisetum glaucum has medium needs for water. It is not considerably thirsty, and this can be offset by a good layer of mulch. Consider 1 inch of rain per week.

Temperature and Humidity

Ornamental millet is not hardy, rather it is a hot climate, warm-season plant. Higher temperatures result in faster growth and taller plants. As long as the soil is kept evenly moist, high humidity is not required.

Fertilizer

It is a good idea to treat the ornamental millet with a feeding of 15-0-15 fertilizer once when you first transplant it or after emergence if the seeds were directly sown.

Types of Millet

Some pearl millet types produce grain while others are purely ornamental. Here are a few more types of ornamental millet to choose from for your garden:

  • 'Purple Majesty': The iconic millet hybrid is often called "tall, dark, and handsome" because of its deep purple foliage and plumes that reach a full height of 5 feet; plumes grow 8 to 15 inches tall and are covered in golden pollen when in bloom.
  • 'Purple Barron': Though it looks like 'Purple Majesty', this is a more compact hybrid that grows to 3 feet and with darker leaves, making it a good container plant.
  • 'Purple Jester': This compact pearl millet has more variegated foliage of burgundy, green, and chartreuse.
  • 'Jade Princess': Chartreuse foliage reaches only 2 feet in height; the flower spikes are pollen-free; this smaller type is also often used for container gardens.

How to Grow Millet From Seed

Pearl millet is propagated with seeds. If you plan to plant seeds, they can be started inside in trays 45 days before frost and hardened to the cooler weather. It is fast-growing and will take only 60 days for the plant to go from seed to flower. Move to larger pots as the plants outgrow their starter trays to avoid the millet from becoming root-bound.

Direct sowing of the seeds can be done when the danger of frost has passed, but the soil needs to be sufficiently warm for germination to occur. Plant seeds 1 to 3 inches down from the top for best germination though if you go deeper, seedlings will still likely emerge. Keep the soil moist but not soaked.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Pearl millet can encounter aphids and spider mites, which can be eradicated with insecticidal soap. Plants may be riddled with wireworms, which can be removed by hand, biological control, or insecticides.

Be on the lookout for the following diseases: ergot (a fungus), cercosporin leaf spot (brown and tan blotches on leaves), downy mildew (a fungus caused by wet foliage), leaf rust (appears where it's humid), and smut (which also appears on corn). Fungicides will help with these issues.

Common Problems With Millet

Millet is easy to grow, but it can encounter a couple of problems that can be fixed.

Lackluster Color

Pearl millet's richest color purple and maroon leaves are achieved in full sun, and planting these cultivars in any other light conditions will not do them justice.

Poor Growth

There are a couple of reasons why you may not have robust growth. The seeds or plants from the nursery may have been placed in soil that was too cool or wet for them to thrive. Another issue is weeds; pearl millet cannot compete with weeds for nutrients. Weed control is important for better growing pearl millet.

FAQ
  • When did pearl millet become a popular garden plant?

    As an ornamental plant, pearl millet took off in 2003 when the cultivar ‘Purple Majesty’ was an All-America Selections Gold Medal Winner. The selection had maroon leaves and purple inflorescences and was bred by Dr. David Andrews from the University of Nebraska.

  • Is ornamental millet also edible like other millet plants?

    Millet is a confusing term used broadly to describe five completely different genera of plants: foxtail millet (Setaria italica), proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), Japanese millet (Echinochloa frumentaceae), brown top millet (Panicum ramosum), and pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum). While the others are used primarily as food crops around the world, pearl millet is one type of millet used mainly as an ornamental plant in the United States.

  • What else is pearl millet used for?

    Pearl millet, in its early stages of development, is often used as animal feed for grazing. It is not considered quality grazing feed when it is fully grown for many reasons.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ornamental Millet. Pennisetum glaucum. University of Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension.

  2. Pearl Millet for Grain. University of Georgia Extension.

  3. Pearl Millet Overview and Management. University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.