Cut the Grass!

Miscanthus Zebrinus in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Miscanthus Zebrinus in Fall (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

The longer I grow grasses, the less enamored I’ve become of them.  To be fair, most ornamental grasses are beautiful, and provide wonderful textures and structure to the winter garden.  Nevertheless, with hurricanes throughout the summer and numerous heavy winter snows, many surrender and crumble into an unsightly heap long before spring arrives.  Although I have this love-hate relationship with grasses, there are a few that have redeemed themselves in my eyes.  In other words, despite gale force winds and old man winter’s best efforts, they continue to stand tall and wave in the autumn sunshine. 

Dwarf Fountain Grass 'Hameln' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Dwarf Fountain Grass ‘Hameln’ in Fall (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Sea oats (Chasmanthium  latifolium) and dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’) are shorter varieties (average 2′) that can be used at the front of the border, and need little tending throughout the year. And, because of their size, are much easier to divide (as opposed to the larger grasses that require a back hoe to remove).  The taller Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ (over 6′) and the weeping ‘Variegatus’ (4-5′) have strong stems that have held up dependably to the elements, ultimately earning them a permanent spot in my gardens.  On the other hand, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ has narrower leaves, and usually collapses mid-winter, even though I have it in a protected corner near my house.  Which brings me to the question, when should we cut down our grasses?

'Hameln' and 'Zebrinus' in Winter in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

‘Hameln’ and ‘Zebrinus’ (background) in Winter (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

No matter the type of grass, I usually don’t cut them down until the end of winter (mid-March), unless they are looking particularly crappy.  I’m not sure if they benefit by allowing them to stand through the winter, but when I had to cut down a Zebrinus late summer after a tree fell on it, it straggled back the following year much diminished.  Perhaps because a lot of these grasses are later season, allowing them to rest and recharge over the winter is probably a better option.  I’ll leave that to you, my readers, to experiment and let me know what has been the most successful for you.

Miscanthus Variegatus in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Miscanthus Variegatus in Bloom (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

The actual cutting is pretty easy with the shorter grasses, and I usually get by with hand pruners.  However, the big guys are a different story, and can be a bit of a chore.  If you’re fortunate enough to lure someone over to your home under false pretenses (“Hi, Debbie, come on over for come coffee and cake-let’s catch up“), and once they arrive you drag them out to the grasses and sob that you can’t do it without them, it might work once . . .  But, when there are no more friends left to torture, take heart, it’s not that hard to do this by yourself.  First, grab some good gloves and make sure you have long sleeves, as those grasses are sharp.  Next, find some form of rope, twine or even weed whacker line, and tie the grass as tightly as possible about two feet up from the ground.  I use Fiskars Hedge Shears (, which provides a nice crisp cut with minimal effort, resulting in a neat mound when finished.  All you’re left with is a tidy bundle to haul off to the compost pile, and a small amount of foliage to rake up.  So my gardening friends, no more excuses, get out there and cut that grass!


  1. Cynthia Newby says:

    Hi Kathy this is a very helpful article–the techique you use is what I do, and it is a great idea to focus on particular grasses that work best.
    The design part of your comments seems to reinforce my basic stance that winter interest is not real–grasses look crappy, I agree! but also might consider comparing hours during growing season (0) versus most perennials for good looks most of the year–grasses may come out on top.
    One other note–I have read that the master of designing with grasses, Piet Oudolf, in fact uses those multiples of grasses in public gardens–in a private garden, one or two are enough, just like you show. THX for sending!

    • Thanks for your comments, Cynthia. I have whittled down my grasses quite a bit, substituting shrubs and evergreens that don’t have to be dug up and divided every few years. Perennials not so much, for the reasons you mention-lack of seasonal interest. As for the public gardens with multiple grass combinations; I pity the people that have to stake, divide and cut those things year after year after year!!

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