Tricks for Cutting Down Ornamental Grass

The visual interest of an ornamental grass is exceptional, adding vertical interest with a fine texture and architecture. This interest continues across the winter even when the plant is dormant and leaves are dead and dried. Cutting away the dried foliage in early spring is necessary for the attractive re-growth of blades. Using the right-sized tool and tying grass blades makes this annual task easier.

Seasonal Timing

Newcomers to gardening, or those less familiar with ornamental grasses may be motivated to cut back all perennials and annual plants as soon as the fall frost turns them brown, yellow, or tan. Arguably, the most beautiful aspect of the grass is seeing its seed heads and dried foliage during the harvest season as well as providing cover for wildlife and bringing a rustling sound to the garden on windy days. Enjoy the beauty of grass across the winter and allow nature to do some work on your behalf. As the cold, snow and rain of winter repeatedly treats the ornamantal grasses' remains, the toughness of the plant fibers are broken down. Immediately after a fall frost, the grass blades are still juicy and taut with young, healthy fibers. Allowing wind and cold to gradually degrade the structure of the grass over the winter months makes cutting the foliage easier in early spring. In fact, in some regions the blades will naturally collapse and break away by midwinter, leaving a loose pile of straw after the snow and ices melts.

Tool Selection

Not all ornamental grasses are created equally. Smaller, tuft-like clumps with thin foliage are easy to trim and cut, even with a lightweight scissors. Others, like a sugarcane, grow tall and imposing with thick, semi-woody sheaths at the bases of their leaf blades. Such large grasses require sharp hand pruners, loppers, or even a machete to facilitate their cutting. Dense clumps of grasses may also be cut back efficiently with the use of power equipment like power hedge shears, string trimmers or small chainsaws. Grass blades, when stiff and dry, may also pose a risk of cutting skin. Thick gloves are a good protection against that awkwardly positioned stem tip or sheath that can poke or slice at a finger when working on the grass clump. For the same reason, consider wearing eye protection when bending and stooping around dried clumps of ornamental grasses to avoid poking an eye on an errant stem.

Cutting Tips

A sharp cutting blade will make any pruning job easier. Ensure your tool, regardless of type, does not have rusted or dull blades. Sharpen blades with a file or purchase a new tool, if desired, before tackling the pruning task. A common problem with cutting back ornamental grasses is that the leaves block your view of the clump, get in the way of your hands and tools, or are wind-blown across the yard. Regardless of the grass clump size, bring a roll of inexpensive blue painters or masking tape to wrap around the foliage, making a nice upright bundle. For coarse, large clumps consider using a rope or series of elastic cords to encircle the foliage. The cutting of the foliage does not need to be with one motion. With the bundle in place, cuts can be made stem by stem or in small clusters based on the size of the stems and the cutting capabilities of the tool. Do not worry about the unevenness of the cuts that remain on the grass. Once the upper bundle is fully removed, you can return and trim the ground clump to a size or shape you prefer. The bundle makes clean-up easier, too. They are quick to pick up, reduce scatterings of loose stems and are readily handled to place into compost piles or municipal yard waste bins. Cutting the grass bundle into smaller pieces is made simpler with a stationary clump atop a table or bin.

Keywords: perennial care, ornamental grasses, garden maintenance

About this Author

James Burghardt has written for The Public Garden, Docent Educator, numerous non-profit newsletters and for Learn2Grow.com's comprehensive plant database. He holds a Master's degree in Public Horticulture from the University of Delaware and studied horticulture and biology in Australia at Murdoch University and the University of Melbourne's Burnley College.