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Native Grasses: Little Blue Stem

A great starter native grass and a few others to try.

small corner grass planting in full sun
Small Corner Garden in Full Sun with One Native Grass

In a mostly woodland garden with only a few spots of true full sun, I haven't planted many grasses. They always seemed best planted in drifts of multiple plants in larger spaces or meadows. This corner garden near my home stopped me in my tracks on a sunny fall day though and got me thinking. With just one or two plants of each grass, this subtly beautiful palette of color just glowed in the soft fall light.

This corner garden is in full sun. While all four of the grasses have similar texture, the color and height variations make the difference. While only one of the grasses here is native, it occurs to me, you could replicate this with natives fairly easily.

The native grass here, little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium), is easy to grow. One of the reasons it makes a great first grass to try if you are new to grasses is its size. It is smaller, growing to 2 to 4 feet tall and wide. It seems easier to add into a garden, particularly smaller ones.

Little bluestem is often described as a grass for full sun to part shade. It can be grown in groups or as a stand alone specimen plant. I have found the more sun it gets, the stronger the fall color! The variation in the colors of a single plant are truly beautiful. Little blue stem is commonly available in native plant nurseries and a cultivar called little blue stem 'standing ovation' (Schizachrhyrium scoparium 'Standing Ovation') is commonly available at garden centers.

Moving to the lower right of the corner garden, is a low growing ornamental carex. There are many low growing native carex, though most of those commonly available tend to be for shade or part shade. If the area has a lot of moisture you could try one of the native carex that can take a bit of sun such as upright sedge (Carex stricta).

Prairie Dropseed in Winter

Another alternative is prairie drop seed (Sporobolus heterolepis), a shorter, neat grass that is green earlier in the year and turns orange and then brown towards winter. It thrives in full sun and is drought tolerant once established.

invasive Japanese blood grass
Japanese blood grass (invasive)

Moving up to the right, the Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica "Rubra'), while beautiful, is described as invasive in many, many places. The 'Rubra' cultivar is said by some to be less invasive but there is plenty of expert discussion about how incredibly invasive the species is and not to plant any form of it. I planted it in a garden in Baltimore long ago and it started spreading right away. It is highly recommended not to plant this grass which is still sold many places. There are substitutes!

native love grass in early fall
Love Grass alternating with Asters in early fall at Mt. Cuba

One native that would work well here for both size and color contrast would be love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) which has a wider blade and a bronze maroon color later in fall. Love grass grows to about 2 feet high and wide and is drought tolerant once established.

native muhly grass in fall
Muhly Grass in Fall (Shutterstock image)

Last, the corner garden has a taller, green ornamental grass bringing height in the rear. A taller native grass to add even more color is muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Muhly grass really shines in fall when its wispy seed heads add soft pink waves to your garden.

The native grasses suggested here are all easy to grow but also not known to spread rapidly. They are also commonly available. The native grasses mentioned here are currently available by mail from Plant More Natives.

Last, this garden shows us backgrounds matter. Another reason this corner stands out so beautifully is the backdrop of evergreens. Planting light colored grasses in front of dark green makes those colors pop!

Happy gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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