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This Years Big Thing is Purple!
by John Harmon
February 9, 2003

jhpurple_majesty.jpg (13070 bytes)What a difference a week makes. Last week it hit -44C. Vehicles died, pedestrians hurried and smokers huddled in small groups outside of partially open doors to survive their nicotine break. This week temperatures hit plus four and even the pedestrians stopped to take in the sun while dodging the vehicles, now back to full speed and even the smokers got to relax while getting their fix.

Last week gardeners despaired as the cold seeped in and this week the despair vanished in the sun as spring like weather returned. I've received some requests for information on this years "big thing", purple millet and folks want to know if it will grow here. The answer is "yes" with a little help.

Purple Majesty Millet is an All America Selection and the "big thing" in landscaping circles. The Latin name is Pennisetum glaucum. What makes this plant so desirable is that the entire plant is a striking deep purple. The leaves look like corn and it sends up cattail like plumes that are 12-14 inches long. Each plant has 1-3 main stems, with secondary shoots of 24 inches.

It's a member of the pearl millet family and is considered more efficient in utilization of soil moisture and has a higher level of heat tolerance than does sorghum and maize. It thrives on light-textured and well-drained soils, and is grown extensively in drier areas. Pearl millet has been used as a cereal for nearly the last 3000 years in Africa and parts of the Near East. The crop is cultivated for both forage and grain. It is grown on about 26 million ha. in many countries of Africa, a few countries of Asia, particularly in India, and in some parts of the Americas and Australia. We in North America use it for backgrounds and borders or just to feed the birds.

Purple Majesty millet is a hybrid and is disease and pest resistant. It will remain green and look like young corn plants until it's planted out into full sun. This one is an annual so you won't have to worry about it surviving the winter. It should however re-seed it's self if it gets enough heat over the summer to produce seed. Millet takes about two and a half months to get seed heads so this one needs to be started indoors about mid April here in the north. Start it in the same containers that you would use for corn. Something with enough room for the roots to go deep, something like a one-liter milk carton. Sow a half dozen seeds to each carton.

This millet will do best in light sandy soil that is slightly acid. Sounds like my whole yard! Millet is also one of the most drought resistant cereal grains on the planet and gets by on moisture levels that would kill most other plants and choke a camel. That means that if you water it regularly it will grow like crazy. I don't know of anyone that has tried it this far north to find out if it's daylight sensitive but I'll find out this summer. I've learned that some plants just can't understand 20 hours of daylight and as a result go kind of dormant if they grow at all. Hopefully this one will just grow better in the longer hours of sun.

Millet will grow on very poor soil with little nutrient but of course it will do much better if you put it in good soil. I'll be feeding mine because a study done in Asia determined that "millet responds well to good management, such as irrigation and fertilization".

Even if you get yours in late and it only produces foliage it will be spectacular with that deep purple color. If it does produce seed heads your yard will be the most popular spot for birds in your neighborhood! Keep in mind that if you do get seed that this plant is a hybrid and you may not get purple from the collected seed planted the next year.

If you want to try some Purple Majesty millet this year it's available from almost every seed catalog but expect to pay a higher price for a small packet of seeds because of course it's this years "big thing".

Don't forget to chat with John on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. He will be on for just one hour and can answer your gardening questions. His specialty is greenhouse growing, but he is also familiar with cold climate gardening too!

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