BOULDER – A recent headline in health news linked cowlick-patterned hair with improved health, which is good news for my landscape. I have ornamental grass and at this time of year, the swirled stalks and open centers rival any cowlick Brad Pitt can handsomely showoff.
The heavy snows left calling cards across the landscape, breaking tree limbs, parting upright junipers and flattening grass. If you haven’t taken the time to cut back the ornamental grasses in your garden, this weekend is the time to put it on the schedule.
Cutting back ornamental grasses early in the spring helps them send up healthy clumps of new growth and tidies up the remains of last year. When young, the grasses are smaller in size and cutting them to within two inches of the soil is simple – it takes a couple of minutes with a hand pruner and the gardener is off to relax after a job well done.
However, as grasses mature in the landscape, they, like many of us, increase in girth and the effort to trim them back each spring soon involves motorized equipment, pickup trucks, bungee chords and a posse of interested neighbors shouting encouragement.
To reduce the physical wear and tear on the gardener here are a few tips passed along to me by friends who work in the green industry. Before cutting back the large grasses, wear heavy gloves and long sleeved, sturdy clothing to protect against the serrated edges of many grasses. Bundling the tops of larger grasses, such as miscanthus, sporobolus (giant sacaton), or calamagrostis (feather reed grass) can make cutting and cleanup easier and faster.
Using the bungee cords, tightly bundle the grass approximately one-third to one-half way up the bunch so that they resemble large wheat sheaves. After bundling, clip the grasses to within three to four inches of the base clump. Hand pruners may not be up to the task with tough-stemmed grasses and two handed loppers or a weed whacker may be needed.
A few of the truly large grasses may even require use of a reciprocating saw or chain saw, and at this point my spouse usually jogs out to ask if he can help, because to be honest, he either helps me with the chain saw or he helps me to the emergency room (always use eye protection when cutting down grasses with motorized equipment).
If using the chain saw method, you may want to bungee chord the grass in two places, one slightly higher than halfway, and one lower, to within five or six inches of the ground. With this system you will hold the bunch more rigidly for better cutting with the chainsaw.
As grasses mature they sometimes have the center die out, leaving an undesirable hollow area. To avoid this, once the grass bunch has been cut and removed from the area, take a few extra minutes to aggressively run your gloved hand through the center of the clump. This will break up remaining dried stalks and allow more sunlight to penetrate through to emerging shoots and can result in a well filled ornamental grass.
If you plan on composting the cut stalks, run them through a chipper shredder first to break up the tough stems. They will be entirely carbon material for the compost pile, so be sure to add nitrogen along with them for best results. If you can’t compost the clumps, load them into a pickup or other vehicle to take them to the local city yards for composting. If using an open pickup or trailer, be certain to tie them down before driving so the clumps don’t sail out and land on an unsuspecting car following you.
Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development.
By Carol O’Meara, CSU Extension – Boulder County