The Blues

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

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rodney eason

Rodney Eason - Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, father of 4, husband to a Renaissance woman. I spent the first part of my life in North Carolina, the middle in Pennsylvania, and now I am determined to become a Mainer  while keeping my southern drawl. I consider the rhetorical question, "you're not from around here, are you?" a compliment. I love great gardens, beautiful plants, and inspiring architecture. Because of this, I am on a lifelong quest to find a garden that artistically combines beautiful plants while being centered around an evocative building. For me, this would be Beatrix Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks, with the plants of Lotusland and Chanticleer, around Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel. My wife and I are now making our new home and garden in a 130 year old New England house with a farmer's porch near the Damariscotta River in coastal Maine. When our kids get into college, we want to hike the Appalachian Trail as a family over a summer break. My likes (in random order): the smell of fresh basil and rosemary, bold foliage, India Pale Ale, good running shoes, Top Gear, the smell of New England in the fall (it reminds me a bit of English Leather, which my grandfather wore), and the sound of our family laughing together around the dinner table. I dream of one day owning an old Toyota 4X4 pick-up and seeing the Avett Brothers in concert.
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2 Comments

  1. Paul Westervelt on 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 on September 5, 2013 at 8:37 am

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

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