Growing Blonde Ambition Grass Across The Country: A Unique Native Ornamental Grass

Blonde Ambition Grass in Municiple Planting in New Mexico

Since I was a small child, much of my life has been spent here in New Mexico exploring the prairies along the eastern side of the state; the western edge of the Great Plains. And this has left me with an indelible love of the prairie and the incredible native grasses and wildflowers that grow there.

One of the dominant native grasses that define the short grass prairies of New Mexico is blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis). Blooming with the summer rains ("monsoons") that are our major source of moisture, this small grass covers vast areas with its distinctive brown flag-like flowers intermixed with other native grasses and wildflowers.

Blonde Ambition Grass: A Great Discovery

As a gardener, commercial greenhouse grower and a plant breeder, I'm always watching for interesting new plants. And over the past decade or so, I've circled back to my prairie "roots" and have been especially focused on finding more western native ornamental grasses for the water-wise garden.

So, when out weeding in my Santa Fe yard ten years ago, it was with great curiosity that I spotted in among a big patch of robust blue grama grass plants, a blonde flag-like flower. I carefully separated the plant from the surrounding brown-headed grasses and transplanted it into one of my garden test beds. I didn't give it a lot of thought until the following summer, when, what was now a very large and robust grama grass plant, came back into flower. Behold, the entire plant was covered in chartreuse (yellow-green) flowers. I was captivated and anxious to see how the flowers would mature. They only got more lovely, with the unusually long, thin seed heads ripening to the color of a bleached blonde head of hair. The name 'Blonde Ambition' practically suggested itself, and I brought this new, stunning selection of blue grama grass into cultivation.

Award-Winning Blonde Ambition Grass: Makes It To The Big Time

As a member of Plant Select®, a collaborative plant introduction program with the Denver Botanic Garden and Colorado State University, I proposed 'Blonde Ambition' for inclusion in the program. After several years of testing and evaluation, it was selected as a Plant Select winner in 2011. Since its introduction, through High Country Gardens and members of Plant Select, this outstanding and distinctive cultivar has captured the interest of gardeners, landscapers and landscape architects across much of the US. It was even selected and used in huge numbers in the landscape of the newly constructed Apple building campus in Cupertino, CA.

Growing Blonde Ambition Grass: Where Does It Grow?

Bouteloua gracilis is a widespread native species, documented by the USDA to be found in 28 states and Canada ⃰. This, no doubt, is why 'Blonde Ambition' is being successfully used over a large portion of the country, with the best results being reported:

  • Throughout the western US (up to elevations of 6,500 to 7,000 ft.)
  • Most of CA (highly recommended by the University of CA, Davis)
  • The northern half of Texas and surrounding Great Plains states
  • The upper Midwest
  • The East Coast
  • The Mid-Atlantic states.

NOTE: It has not done well in the Deep South, southern TX and Florida and some of the Mid-Atlantic states where too much precipitation (more than about 30 inches annually) and extremely hot, muggy summer weather are limiting factors.

Growing Blonde Ambition Grass

  • 'Blonde Ambition' is a very large growing selection of the species maturing to a height of about 30-36 inches in flower.
  • Many gardeners, familiar with the typical blue grama plants, are very surprised by its large size and vigor. Recommended spacing between 'Blonde Ambition' plants is about 20 to 24 inches apart.
  • Being a warm-season grass, it greens up in mid- to late spring and comes into flower in July.
  • In the more arid Great Plains and the western US, it grows in a wide variety of soil types including clay in full, hot sun.
  • In moister climates, this grass needs lots of sun and heat along with fast draining sandy, rocky or sandy-loam type soils.
  • The seed heads are very persistent and hold on the plants through the fall and winter months, providing many months of cold weather beauty and texture.

Blonde Ambition Grass Maintenance

Like many of our wonderful native grasses, 'Blonde Ambition' is an easy-to-grow, low maintenance grass. Here are the basics:

Cut back the plants to a height of 2 to 3 inches above the soil in mid-spring when the grass is still dormant. Be sure to scratch out the middle of the clumps with gloved hands to loosen dead leaves and give the new season's growth room to push out from the crown.

Fertilize with a blend of Yum Yum Mix and compost, applied as a top dressing around the base of the plant in mid- to late fall (when you're fertilizing your other grasses and perennials).

After 3 to 4 growing seasons, or when the middle of the crown begins to thin or die out, it's time to divide the mature grass clumps. While still dormant in mid-spring, dig up the plants with a root ball as wide as the edges of the clump. Cut the clump into 4 pieces (like a pie) and knock off the dead crown section of the pieces. Replant into a planting hole enriched with good quality compost and Yum Yum Mix.

Blonde Ambition Grass Companion Plants

The wonderful see-through look of the brightly colored flowers/seed heads makes 'Blonde Ambition' a stunning companion plant for many varieties of perennials and ornamental grasses. For the best combinations, choose plants and grasses with similar xeric (low water) requirements that bloom in mid- to late summer and fall.

Blonde Ambition with English Lavender and Sedum
Blonde Ambition with English Lavender and Sedum

Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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