How to Grow and Care for Little Bluestem

Litle bluestem grass with copper-like stems and white fluffy seed heads

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a North American and native, warm-season prairie grass that is growing in popularity ornamentally. The tinges of silvery-blue on the green stems and foliage, and its low-maintenance care requirements make this an attractive and adaptable choice as an accent in your borders. With a clumping habit, it also works well in rockeries or meadow garden settings, and the deep roots mean it can help prevent soil erosion. The purplish seed heads, stems, and foliage turn a copper-yellow shade in the fall, meaning it's a great winter-interest ornamental grass. You can plant the seeds in spring or fall and they establish quickly. Be aware that little bluestem self-seeds freely, so it can become a nuisance when mass planting in well-manicured landscapes.

 Common Name Little Bluestem, Beard grass
 Botanical Name Schizachyrium scoparium
 Family Poaceae
 Plant Type Ornamental perennial grass
 Mature Size 2 - 5 ft. tall
 Sun Exposure Full sun
 Soil Type Various
 Soil pH Acid, Neutral, Alkaline
 Bloom Time Summer, Fall
 Flower Color Purple
 Hardiness Zones 3 - 9, USDA
 Native Area North America

Little Bluestem Care

Little bluestem is a drought-resistance and easy-care ornamental grass. Once established, it can do well in dry, infertile sites because of its expansive root system and tolerates a wide variety of conditions. Just pop it in a sunny position and watch it thrive.

Little bluestem grass with copper-colored stems closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Little bluestem grasses with copper-yellow stems and tiny white seed heads on top

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Little bluestem grass with copper-colored stems with white seed heads in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Little bluestem grass clustered with deep copper-colored stems with white seed heads

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Little bluestem grasses with white fluffy seed heads on thin brown stems

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

Little bluestem needs a full sun position to thrive even though it can grow in a diverse range of conditions.

Soil

This grass does best in a well-drained soil that is dry or has light moisture levels. It can also tolerate clay and occasional wet (but not continually inundated) conditions. It's a good choice for poor, infertile landscapes.

Water

Once little bluestem is established, it has good drought tolerance. Additional watering can result in the plant stems drooping unattractively. Overwatering can even kill the plants.

Young plants will appreciate a light weekly watering during the summer months, but only if the region does not receive decent amounts of rainfall already.

Temperature and Humidity

Well-adapted to southern climates, little bluestem does surprisingly well in most parts of the US. It copes with dry and humid heat and thrives when temperatures are above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fertilizer

Little bluestem doesn't need a lot of fertilization, if any at all, because it is able to grow in poor soils. Rich, fertile soils can result in the stems flopping at the base as they grow (known as lodging). A drier, less fertile soil helps to keep the stems shorter and stronger.

Types of Little Bluestem

Due to its rising popularity, there is a growing range of little bluestem cultivars to choose from. Some popular options include:

  • 'Blaze': Select this cultivar for winter interest. The deep red fall foliage fades to shades of pink. It also copes better in clay soils than the main species.
  • 'The Blues': The blue tones in the foliage are pronounced in this cultivar, and the purplish and maroon fall shades are eye-catching. It can grow to around 3 feet tall.
  • 'Standing Ovation': Can grow to over 3 feet tall and has a strong, upright habit. It copes well with strong winds and dry conditions.

Pruning

If you want to promote healthy new growth, cut back the foliage and stems in late winter or early spring. The seeds continue to be a winter food source for the local birds if you wait until the spring.

Propagating Little Bluestem

Little bluestem is easy to propagate by dividing healthy, established clumps in the spring. Doing it early in the year allows the roots of the division plenty of time to establish before winter. Space the divisions around 1.5 feet apart.

How to Grow Little Bluestem From Seed

Little Bluestem is easy to grow from seed, it's best to do this as early on in the spring as possible. That way, the extensive root system will have a chance to establish before winter arrives. It will germinate within one to three weeks with the right temperatures (around 80 degrees Fahrenheit). Using 1/2 to 2 pounds of seeds per 1,000 square feet can produce good results.

Common Problems With Little Bluestem

Although little bluestem is a hardy ornamental grass, overwatering and over fertilizing can lead to weak stems and lodging at the plant base (this is when the foliage droops). Lodging can result in fungal leaf spot development.

FAQ
  • How fast does little bluestem grow?

    This grass can take up to two years to fully establish. Once established, the stems can grow to be 2 to 3 feet tall, but the flowering seed heads can stretch up to 5 feet tall in the late summer.

  • What plants are similar to little bluestem?

    Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) are other common native warm-season prairie grasses that grow in conditions similar to little bluestem. However, these other grasses typically grow much taller and in denser clumps, making them higher maintenance and not always suited to every landscape.

  • Is little bluestem beneficial to my local ecosystem?

    Absolutely! This is considered a fantastic grass to grow if you want to offer prime nesting and wildlife overwintering habitats. The seeds are a high-value source of winter nutrition for birds. If you're looking for a deer-resistant grass, however, little bluestem isn't the one to choose.

Article Sources
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  1. Dr. Welch, William, C. 'Little Bluestem Grass'. Aggie Horticulture, Texas A & M University