Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is the perfect ornamental grass to grow if you are looking for something tall, showy, and suited for warmer temperatures or dryer regions.
These tall grasses are often used in agricultural lands because they are a good food source for horses, cattle, and other wild animals like birds. The bright foliage color and rich texture of these showy grasses also make them popular in ornamental gardens and they are often used to create borders, privacy screens, or as a backdrop plant for shorter flowering species.
Gardeners should take note that Big Bluestem is invasive in some locations. It is best to check with your local authorities to ensure you can grow this plant.
In this guide, we are going to take a closer look at this useful grass variety and we share some great tips on how to properly care for big bluestem grass.
|Scientific name||Andropogon gerardii|
|Common names||Big Bluestem, Turkeyfoot, Sand Bluestem|
|Plant Type||Ornamental Grass|
|Height and Width||4–8 ft. tall, 2–3 ft. wide|
|Origin||North and Central America|
|Flower colors||Blue, Brown/copper, or red/burgundy|
|Foliage color||Blue, Green, Gold/Yellow, Orange, or Reddish depending on the season|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type & pH||Well-drained, clay or sandy soil|
|Special features||Low Maintenance, drought tolerant, attracts butterflies, suitable for meadows, ponds, walkways, and it is a forage grass for horses and cattle|
What Does Big Bluestem Look Like?
Big bluestem is a very attractive grass that can grow up to 8 feet tall. These tall and showy clumps of grass will offer year-round interest with a fresh or different look through the different seasons.
The perennial grasses will sprout new growth in early spring. The new growth will stay bright green in spring but can turn blue-green in summer. Big bluestem blooms in late summer to fall and it forms small blue, coppery, or reddish plumes or spikelets that resemble turkey feet.
The foliage will start dying in autumn and will transform into vivid fiery copper tones as the season progresses.
In winter, the dormant grasses will have golden or orange hues but they will still offer lots of charm since the clumps will stay upright for a long time.
The upright clump-forming grass will add lots of vertical interest to your garden and is great for adding texture and contrast to your garden spaces.
Where Does Big Bluestem Grow
The warm-season grass originates from North and Central America in USDA plant zones 4 – 9. The grass is frequently used as fodder grass in agricultural spaces and they are also known to improve native planting sites. They are also mass planted for erosion control in north american prairies.
The grass species is also used as ornamental grass in residential gardens because it is very beautiful to look at and easy to maintain.
These ornamental grasses can be used in all sorts of landscape locations such as meadows, around ponds, and alongside walkways and they are great for creating privacy screens in gardens.
How to Grow Big Bluestem Grass
This is one of the easiest ornamental grasses to grow because big bluestem freely self-seeds, it has a high germination rate and it has a flexible growing nature. Here is a quick look at how to plant and grow these showy grasses.
Big bluestem can be propagated through division or you can easily grow it from seed.
If you are propagating through division then you should wait for the grass clumps to mature before attempting to divide them. It is best to wait until early spring or late winter before you divide the clumps.
Root division is pretty easy. All you have to do is lift the rhizomes from the soil and divide them with the use of a spade or sharp cutting tool. The divided roots can then be planted and should be kept moist for a couple of weeks until the root system is restored.
The grass has a high seed rate and can easily be grown from seed. Simply disturb 1/2 inch of the soil and lightly sprinkle the seeds on the soil. Compress the seeds with the soil by walking on it and sprinkle a little bit more soil over the seeds. You can now keep the seeds moist until they sprout and water regularly during the first growing season.
This hardy grass prefers dry soils but it can adapt to many soil types including sandy or even clay soil. You can also grow it in acidic, neutral, or alkaline soils with a pH range of 4.8 – 6.9.
These grasses should be planted in well-drained soil because they can develop root rot if they are grown in bogged conditions.
You shouldn’t cut or mow these grasses during the growing season because this can damage the plant. It is best to wait for the foliage to die back completely before pruning.
Most gardeners will leave these grasses up through the winter because they can add lots of ornamental interest during their dormancy state.
It is best to wait until late winter or early spring before you cut off all the dead grass. Pruning the dead growth during this time will help the new growth flourish.
How to Care for Big Bluestem
The grass species is a favorite amongst many landscapers and farmers because it is very easy to care for. Here is a quick look at the best way to care for these warm-season grasses.
The native grasses should be watered regularly during their first growing season. But once they have matured, there will be hardly any need for watering because they form deep fibrous roots.
These native plants can be very drought tolerant and are ideal for rain gardens, dry spaces, or natural prairies because they can survive long dry spells.
Despite its hardy nature, it will also grow well in moist conditions. You can easily grow it around water features like ponds because it will take well to high moisture levels as long as the soil drains well.
The tall grass will grow best in a full-sun position. They can survive in part shade areas but will flop over if they don’t receive enough direct sunlight. These showy grasses won’t tolerate deep shade positions at all.
Temperature and Humidity
The hardy warm season grass prefers warm temperatures and will struggle to germinate at temperatures below 50 degrees F. They grow best at temperatures that range from 80 – 90 degrees F in summer and it is quite heat tolerant.
Some varieties like ‘Bison’ do have a good cold tolerance level but most prefer warmer temperatures.
The grass can handle dry conditions but it will also grow well at high humidity levels as long as it is planted in free-draining soil. In areas with lots of humidity, it is best to regularly divide the rhizomes so there will be plenty of air circulation.
There is no need to fertilize these grasses because they can adapt to poor soil conditions. Some gardeners do add a little bit of nitrogen fertilizer during the early growing season because this can help your grass grow faster.
Pests and Diseases
Big bluestem is virtually disease free. This grass variety also offers good resistance to deer.
One of the most common issues with this grass is that it tends to flop over if it receives too much water or if it is planted in soil that is too rich in fertilizer.
Caterpillars and other insects can sometimes feed on the foliage but this usually doesn’t cause too many problems for the vigorous growing grass.
Big Bluestem Companions
This ornamental grass can look impressive if you grow it alongside other big bluestem companion plants. You can create dense and texture-rich gardens by combining this grass with other ornamental grass species like little bluestem, switchgrass, prairie dropseed, or tufted hair grass.
Gardeners often use tall bluestem as a backdrop for flowering ornamental plants like shooting stars, showy sunflowers, blazing stars, smooth asters, or butterfly weed because the green backdrop will make the vivid flowers stand out even more.
Big Bluestem Landscaping Ideas
Because these grasses have such flexible growing conditions, they can be used in many different ways to create interesting spaces. Here is a quick look at the best ways to use big bluestem grass.
The grass is often planted on prairies to create grazing fields for horses and cattle. These grasses are high in nutrients and they are also great for supporting local butterfly populations. In mass plantings, the prairie grass can look quite striking.
These drought-tolerant grasses are great for rain gardens, dry gardens, or water-wise landscapes. You can combine them with other tall ornamental plants to create a showy wildflower garden with lots of texture.
The tall grass can form a pretty dense hedge and is great for forming borders or privacy screens on your property.
Common Varieties and Cultivars
There are quite a few different varieties of these native grasses and they can vary a lot in foliage color or flower color. Here is a quick look at some of the most common varieties.
- ‘Red October’
- ‘El Dorado’
Big Bluestem grass is a very useful and very beautiful plant that you can certainly consider growing if you want to create showy landscapes or if you want to help animal populations flourish.
We hope that our care and planting guide gave you lots of creative ideas on the best way to use these grasses and that you will be able to grow healthy and strong grasses that offer lots of interest throughout the year.
Vitman – Andropogon gerardii – https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Andropogon+gerardii
Missouri Department of Conservation – Big bluestem – https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/big-bluestem
Nicole Stoner – Big Bluestem – https://hles.unl.edu/big-bluestem-0
Oklahoma State University – Big Bluestem – https://extension.okstate.edu/programs/plant-id/plant-profiles/big-bluestem/
Ryan Shurette – Plant of the Week – Big Bluestem – https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/andropogon_gerardii.shtml
North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox – Andropogon gerardii – https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/andropogon-gerardii/
*image by Wirestock/depositphotos