Ornamental grasses are a popular choice in the garden, where their textures and colors provide distinct visual interest. And because many ornamental grasses are native species, they're favored among gardeners who are interested in natural and water-efficient landscaping. But once the foliage turns brown at the end of the growing season, gardeners must remove the dead grass. This job can be time-consuming and messy, though there are some best practices to make the process easier.
When to Cut Back Ornamental Grasses
It's a matter of personal choice when you cut back your ornamental grasses. You can do the job in the fall after they die or leave them in place through the winter and cut them in the spring.
Many ornamental grasses will remain attractive through the better part of the winter. And at a time when the rest of the landscape is rather dreary, long grasses swaying in the breeze can add some visual interest. Plus, their seed heads can provide food for wildlife.
If you choose to leave your ornamental grasses standing through winter, you will need to cut them back in early spring before new growth begins to blend with the dead grass. If you wait too long, it will be impossible to remove the dead grass without also shearing new grass.
Equipment / Tools
- Pruning shears or a power hedge trimmer
- Lawn rake
- Biodegradable tape (optional)
Bundle the Grass
The fuller the ornamental grass is, the messier it can be when cutting it down. To lessen the mess, start by bundling the stalks. Any wide tape will do, as long as it's sticky enough to adhere to the grass. Biodegradable tape is recommended. As an alternative, many gardeners like to use bungee cords stretched tightly around the grass.
Depending on the width and height of the ornamental grass, you might need to wrap each bundle of grass in two or three spots along the length of the stems. And large plants might need to have their stalks divided into two or more bundles.
Cut the Grass
Now that the ornamental grass is neatly bundled, take your pruning shears and cut the grass at ground level. With the tape or bungee cords holding the grass blades in place, lean the bundle away from its base as you cut.
If your ornamental grass is well established, a power hedge trimmer might be helpful to do the job. Either way, aim to keep the bundle intact as you cut along the base.
Finish the Job
Cutting the grass bundles is the bulk of the job. But there will undoubtedly be a few renegade blades to clean up with pruning shears. Finish by raking the garden area to catch any loose blades of grass and other debris.
Picking up the bundles to take to the lawn waste or compost pile is an easy task, but removing the tape can be a hassle. This is why biodegradable paper tape that you can leave on (or bungees you can easily remove) is helpful. If your only option is vinyl tape, remove it as best as you can. Any small remnants can be sifted out when you use the finished compost.
Tips for Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses
Most ornamental grasses are perennial plants. But a few are grown as annuals, especially in cold northern climates. For these, it is best to dig out the roots of the plants after bundling and cutting off the stems.
If you are composting the dead grass stalks, cut them in pieces before you add them to the compost pile to speed decomposition. It's much easier to do this if the grass stalks are still tied together in bundles. When composting large volumes of dry, dead grass, balance the mixture by adding wet, green material. Or add a few handfuls of nitrogen fertilizer to help the grass break down.
Finally, this bundling technique works well for any plant with several shoots that need to be cut to ground level. For example, the Siberian iris with its many long, sword-like leaves is easy to cut back if you first bundle the leaves.
Maintenance of Ornamental Grasses. University of Illinois Extension