The Blues

by rodney eason

in 50 Natives, Plants

Last week I taught a course on garden and planting design at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. It was good for me to go back and re-learn all of the elements of design and how garden design has evolved over the ages. By preparing for this class, I began to see how modern designers such as Piet Oudolf experiment with what I will call “fusion design” to make their gardens successful and approachable.

What Oudolf does is that he takes elements of classical design (balance, symmetry, and proportion) and then softens the rigid lines with lush plantings. The plantings sometimes flow through the landscape like the raked gravel of a Japanese meditation garden. The wind causes taller perennials and grasses to sway which adds the element of movement to the landscape. I will go so far as to venture to say that many of his designs would not work without grasses and sedges. Of all of the grasses that we grow at CMBG, the one that has impressed me the most has been Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues.’ This fantastic grass known by the common name of “little bluestem” is native to the prairies of North America.

Schizachyrium The Blues

The Blues differs from the straight species because of the clumping, upright form of the flowers. The grass blades are gently arching to about 2′ in height by July. Then in August, the flowering spikes shoot out from the foliage to about 4′ in height. Planted en masse, this grass makes a strong statement with the upright form. When the wind blows, these grasses carry on the movement that you see in an Oudolf landscape design.

The Blues in pots

All Schizachyrium scoparium like full sun and well-drained soil. If they get too much shade or are too wet, they will flop or begin to thin out. In the fall, the grasses stay upright but change color to a light, wheat brown. The grass blades and flower stalks will stay upright until snow and ice bend them down to the grown. You can cut it back in early spring before the new foliage emerges from the base.

Fall Color

Are you growing little bluestem? If so, what do you think about it?

-Rodney

Images: oglesbytc.com, planterschoice.com, plantlust.com

Paul Westervelt September 5, 2013 at 8:30 am

Rodney,
I’ve grown ‘The Blues’ for seven years commercially and in my garden almost as long and I LOVE it. The color progression from powdery blue to purples to cinnamon delight me every year and I love that it’s so incredibly tough. I haven’t seen it reseed at all which surprised me since it’s a native and didn’t evolve by division :) A great height for many, many gardens too. The only thing keeping it from “perfect” status in my opinion is exactly what you mentioned – the tendency to flop when too wet or too rich. Thriving on neglect is great in the landscape, but makes commercial production a little more challenging since it’s so different from most of the other grasses. To that end, after a year of trials and now a full year of production, I’ve fully embraced ‘Standing Ovation’ from the great team at North Creek Nurseries. It offers all of the benefits of ‘The Blues’ but tolerates the water and feed that I give to Miscanthus and Pennisetum without lodging. Try a few and see what you think!

rodneyeason September 5, 2013 at 8:37 am

Cool, Paul. Thanks. We will try Standing Ovation for sure!

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