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Choosing a Big Bluestem

This weekend, I’m thinking about Andropogon gerardii – big bluestem, a tall prairie grass that’s native to North America.

Yes, the snow is still frozen hard on the ground, but it won’t be very long until it melts – the official start of spring is less than two months away now. I’m already thinking ahead to a more green year, which means less of an all-year green lawn. I’d like to replace a patch of lawn – maybe about 20 feet by 20 feet – with big bluestem grass.

Unlike lawn grasses, big bluestem doesn’t require mowing – just a springtime burnoff of the previous year’s dead stems. That’s one little burst of carbon into the air every year, but much of the carbon from the burn actually stays on the ground in the ashes. You can’t say that about the gasoline burned off weekly in a lawn mower. Besides that, the tall grass provides a different kind of habitat for many kinds of animal, with lots more shelter and nesting material for the winter. It also looks nice blowing in the wind, a benefit you don’t get from lawn grass kept short.

The thing is, I’ve never grown the grass before. It has a reputation as a sturdy plant that can adapt to many different soils, but still, I’m wondering how much I need to prepare the soil, removing the grassroots from the lawn, for example.

I’m also wondering if I’d do better putting in established plants, which I can get for $4.75 each from Seed Savers, or sowing seed, which I can get for $10 per pound at Big Bluestem Prairie. Does one of these places have a stronger, or more genetically diverse, stock of big bluestem? If I decide to get the seed, should I sow it inside, in pots, and then transplant, or just prepare the soil and let it go outside? If I do the latter, what time of year is best to sow the seed?

If there are any big bluestem experts out there, I’d sure appreciate some advice.

One thought on “Choosing a Big Bluestem”

  1. Doug McEvers says:

    Buy a locally adapted seed, one that is native to your area. I would avoid the varietal big bluestems and go with a non-selective seed, the source being a native population. I would also plant a number of different grasses and wildflowers as a polyculture that somewhat mimics the native prairie will be the most vigorous and create the best habitat.

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