Gossip in the Garden

Harmony in the Garden's Chattier Side

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When your Ornamental Grass has a Bad Hair Day

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bad hair day grassHere in Northern California (specifically the Bay Area – USDA zone 8b), ornamental grasses can look fabulous all the way through December.  But once the temperatures start to dip and the occasional frost hits, the grasses start to lose their form and color and one day you walk outside and all you’ve got is a big, messy clump.  Because our winters tend to be mild (average lows here are in the mid-30’s) those grasses can ‘hang on’ for quite awhile… half alive-half dormant.  Many of my clients aren’t really sure when to cut them down, or even HOW to cut them down.

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Some people cut them back as soon as November – some cut them back in March – my advice?  Enjoy their golden color – yes, it’s dormant, but it’s Winter and they can still add a lot to the Winter landscape.  However, once their fronds really start to dry up, you’d better get out there and cut them back before you have a big storm and have a REAL mess on your hands.  That’s usually in January or so.  If you wait too long to cut them down (March or April, for example) it’ll be too difficult to cut back the old growth without hacking back the tender new growth inside of it.

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Check out this video to see exactly what I’m talking about!

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Need more help?  My friend Genevieve, at North Coast Gardening in Humboldt County has written a great article along with another video as well.  Between the two of us, you should be more than confident this coming Winter – get out there and tame those grasses!

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9 Responses to When your Ornamental Grass has a Bad Hair Day

  1. Hi Rebecca, We don’t get snow cover in our zone 7 garden but we leave the grasses standing until late winter….Cutting them down before there is any green showing. They give us winter interest, too…we also leave many perennials standing since water in their crowns can rot them, birds need the seeds for food and there might even be over wintering butterflies and moths on the stalks. gail

  2. Hi Rebecca, Great video and message; however, I think it might be a bit climate-specific. Many of us in northern New England leave ornamental grasses standing through the winter. Snow collects on the plumes and among the blades, offering welcome winter interest when we have little else. As you mentioned, ornamental grasses do tend to be a bit unruly to deal with in the spring, and it is risky to new growth to wait too long to cut them, but I need to see that snowy messy mound of dry reeds amid evergreens on gloomy days. Do you think there is any harm to the grasses in keeping them in tact until spring? Thanks for your thoughts. Lynn

    • You are absolutely right, Lynn! My suggestions are climate-specific since we don’t really get snow-cover…all we get is a heapin’ mound of brown when our grasses finally give out. I always feel envious of those in snowy climates – the photos are so beautiful when the plants are dusted with snow, highlighting their structure. This month’s Garden Design has some beautiful snowy images in it. I would think you should most definitely leave the blades intact through the Winter to protect any tender new growth from getting damaged by any late freezes, as well as for aesthetic reasons…so what you’re doing makes perfect sense to me!

  3. Great video and article. I’m in zone 5(ish) and prune/hack my grasses back right after snow melts.

    I usually try to add some new grasses every summer, but this summer it just didn’t happen.

  4. Great video. I’ll have to pass this along to some of my clients. I get the question often this time of year. It’s so hard in California to know just when to prune. You make it easy.

  5. dear sweet Rebecca,
    I agree completely. For instance, right now I’m enjoying Stipa ‘Plume of Smoke’ and will continue to encounter its tall wispy form in the coming months. Even if the rains and wind cause it to drape over the pathway. By early in the year, late-winter, I’m inclined to cut the grasses back because I do see the beginning of new growth.
    btw, My mood is relaxed each time I see your photo here. Can’t get over how comfortable you look :~)