To Cut or Not To Cut |

To Cut or Not To Cut

by Tina Fixman

It’s hard for me to fathom, but this year marks 34 years of practicing horticulture in one form or another in Northern Nevada. A person learns a thing or two about gardening when working in this high arid mountain climate.

At one time, almost 20 years ago, I wrote a weekly column for the Record-Courier called  “From My Garden”.  I gradually found less and less to discuss, sometimes out of frustration that it was all falling on deaf ears: don’t plant aspen, you can plant before June 1, water in winter when it’s dry (but not when the ground is frozen)…and so it goes.

One of the trends in gardening in the past 30 years has been a move to more drought tolerant ornamental grasses as a way to add architectural interest and movement to our landscapes. They are beautiful in a natural setting, require less water than a comparable sized shrub and will withstand the heat and wind admirably throughout summer.

In my business of landscape maintenance I’ve noticed a trend as we roam around the area working: a propensity on the part of homeowners, landscapers and other maintenance companies to shear these beautiful grasses down incorrectly. Sometimes it’s just that they shear them so early in the fall/winter. You’ve just removed one of the most interesting and striking aspects of a winter garden in Northern Nevada.

Because we have so few durable and trouble-free evergreens to use here (we’ve all seen enough junipers and mugo pines to last a lifetime!), ornamental grasses fill a design void – they add movement, color and detail to a winter landscape. 

The thing to remember is the plant itself has no need to be sheared this early. It could be left “as-is” throughout it’s life and to shear or not to shear would have little cumulative effect on its vigor. Grasses are aesthetically more pleasing when sheared properly in my opinion.

There are some differences among the varieties of ornamental grasses to take into account when deciding when and how to shear.

The family of Miscanthus or Maiden grasses will become more and more brittle with the continuing cold and dry. Then the individual grass leaves will shatter and breakoff, blowing into surrounding shrubs and ornamentals … it does get messy out there.

If you can stand a little mess, leave them. They won’t even push new growth until nearly April. Broken grass stalks, shattering plumes and gathering bunches of leaves may make you think, “oh, how untidy and unsightly.” But in our arid climate, anything that creates an insulating mulch over the roots of our ornamentals should be left in place if at all possible. Some of us willingly acknowledge our O.C.D. tendencies and it is hard to let a garden get untidy, but it’s not unhealthy for you or the garden to let go of a need to tidy too early, especially in a period of developing drought.

Feather reed grass, Calamgrostis spp., is a vertical accent in the landscape with enduring flower plumes that will last quite a long time till hammered by rain or snow (what’s that anyway?). They start their growth cycle early in the season and should be cut to the ground no later than the end of February, since new green growth will begin in March.

Other grasses, like Blue Oat Grass and Giant Stipa, are really wonderful to look at throughout the winter. Again, we start to remove the past seasons growth when the shattering begins in earnest.

With these two grasses, in particular, we use a style of shearing I call “the hedge-hog,” rounding them back into tight balls of growth, removing almost all of last seasons growth.

All other ornamental grasses respond well to the “Marine haircut.” Shear them within and inch or so of the ground.  Anytime you leave the grass cut high, you’re leaving tawny brown growth that will remain throughout the next season, mixing in with the new green growth. This, in my opinion, detracts from the overall appearance of newly sprouting ornamental grass blades, causing the whole plant to look somewhat unhealthy.

So often, there really is no absolute right or wrong way to manage ornamental grasses. But they add so much beauty and interest to a winter landscape, it’s really a shame to hack them down so early unless given a compelling reason (a client directive, for instance).

Northern Nevada is not by it’s nature a lush green environment in the winter months. Having ornamental grasses swaying and moving in the wind, holding sparkling pieces of frost on a bitter cold morning are enough reasons for me to leave them up, throughout my own yard, even though it can get a little “messy.”