Little bluestem is a grass native to the United States and parts of Canada, and can be found in limestone soils, woodland glades and upland prairies. Little bluestem is drought- and flood-tolerant, can grow in light shade and prefers poor sandy soils over rich loamy soils. It is often used for erosion control because it forms clumps with a dense fibrous root system. Little bluestem ranges from 18 inches to 3 feet tall, with the tallest growth occurring in rich soil. It has blue-green stems that are purplish at the base with 3- to 4-inch seed clusters forming in late summer. Use little bluestem in gardens to give texture and height to plantings or as a lawn replacement.
Remove the top 2 to 3 inches of soil and turf with a shovel or turf remover, in the fall prior to seeding little bluegrass. Start early in the fall to allow the weed seeds to germinate once before you cover the soil with black plastic.
Cover the cleared area with 2 inches of coarse sand.
Layer 2 inches of compost over the coarse sand.
Till the layers of coarse sand and compost into the top 4 to 5 inches of soil. The resulting mix should be slightly grainy and loose.
Do a pH test on the planting bed. If the pH is lower than 5.5, apply enough lime (calcium carbonate) to raise the pH. Follow package directions for the application rate. Till the lime into the top 2 to 3 inches of soil.
Rake the soil smooth, break up large clumps of soil and remove rocks and large pieces of roots.
Wait 2 to 3 weeks to allow the disturbed weed seeds to germinate. Remove the weeds by hand or use an herbicide. Do not till weeds into the planting bed because you will bring more ungerminated weed seeds to the surface.
Cover the planting bed with one to two sheets of black plastic as soon as you remove all of the germinated weeds. Use the thickest plastic you can find. Place bricks or concrete blocks on the plastic to secure it.
Remove the black plastic in mid-spring when both daytime and nighttime temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wait for 10 days. Remove any weeds that sprout during this time by hand-pulling. Do not use herbicides. Rake the bed smooth. Do not disturb more than the top half-inch of soil with the rake.
Broadcast-seed little bluestem seeds in April or May. Nighttime temperatures must stay above 50 degrees.
Use the garden roller to press the little bluestem seeds a quarter- to half-inch into the soil. If you are seeding a small area, use the back of a fixed-tine rake or a shovel to gently press the seeds into the soil.
Water the seeds sparingly. Allow the top 1 to 2 inches of soil to dry out before watering again. Little bluestem only needs supplemental watering during its first year. Give it a half-inch to inch of water a week (be sure to count any rain received) from April to September.
Weed around little bluestem patches weekly. Little bluestem cannot compete with weeds, so remove weeds promptly. Give your little bluestem bunches a 2-to-3-inch "no plant" zone around each bunch for optimal growth.
Prune your little bluestem bunches to the ground in March with a lawnmower or pruning shears. Pruning keeps your clumps neat and allows newly emerging stalks to receive direct sunlight.
Things You Will Need
- Sod remover (optional)
- Coarse sand
- pH test
- Lime (calcium carbonate)
- Herbicide (either organic or commercial)
- Black plastic
- Bricks or concrete blocks
- Little bluestem grass seed, any cultivar
- Garden roller
- Lawn mower or pruning shears
- Benign neglect is the word for successfully growing little bluestem. The less water and compost little bluestem bunches receive, the happier they are.
- Black plastic kills weeds and weed seeds by excluding light and "cooking" the seeds. Black plastic also warms up the soil, allowing you to plant earlier.
- Do pH tests after adding compost. Compost will raise the pH (make the soil more alkaline), which can negate the need to add lime.
- Do not prune in the fall. Birds and small mammals rely on little bluestem seeds for food, and the long stems protect the crown from winter damage. You'll also miss seeing the reddish stalks silhouetted against snow and frost.
- Do not use black trash bags as your black plastic. Most trash bags are not thick enough to exclude light and will allow weeds to germinate.
- After you have prepared the seed bed and removed the black plastic, do not work the soil. If you do, you will bring up weed seeds from deeper in the earth to the surface.
- If you use little bluestem grasses to replace your lawn, mow once a week during the growing season (May through September). Set your mower at 3 to 4 inches--any closer and your little bluegrass lawn will not survive the winter.
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