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  • Writer's pictureJohn Chapin

Up in Flames! Ornamental Grass Maintenance

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

The popularity of ornamental grasses, both native and exotic, is well-established in Central Indiana, and deservedly so. With dozens of varieties to choose from, and virtually disease and maintenance-free, there is a size and type suited to any landscape or perennial garden. The only maintenance needed is a once-yearly removal of the dead, dry stems. Cutting down and disposing of the clump is fairly easy, although large, established clumps of taller-growing species can be intimidating.

It seems that homeowners and landscapers have favorite approaches to this yearly task. Some like to first tie up the entire clump with heavy twine or bungee cords to facilitate cleanup after cutting. Others just have at it and cut the clump down, then rake the stems together to haul off for disposal. Either way, cutting the clumps is easiest with power hedge trimmers, but I’ve known people to use chain saws, manual hedge shears, and even hand pruners (oh, hand cramps!). This task can be done either in the fall, or very early spring, usually March. Some gardeners like the winter interest of the dry clumps, but the important thing to remember is to get this done before the clump naturally collapses and the dry stems “shatter and scatter” everywhere, a formidable cleanup chore!

Older decorative grass clumps will form very dense masses of basal stubble that can inhibit the emerging fresh growth in the spring as well as attract rabbits, mice, and voles as shelter for their nests. However, there is a very easy and effective (fun) way to keep this from happening. The answer is to burn the stubble after removing as much of the top growth as possible. Of course, this is not practical if the grass clump is growing close to the house or other structures, as even stubble clumps just a few inches in height can produce sizable flames! However, many ornamental grasses are planted well away from

structures, so as long as there are no shrubs or trees close by, it’s safe to burn the stubs. (BTW: There will be no damage to the roots or new growth, even if it’s very close to emerge.) Choose a dry, windless day to do this. If you are nervous, have a hooked-up garden hose or bucket of water ready nearby. Rake away any leaves or cut grass stems before lighting. Once the stubs are set on fire, the flames are quick, hot, and impressive, but very short-lived. After the flames die down, be sure to wait a few minutes to be sure there are no hot spots that can cause trouble, or douse the burned area with water.

My country neighbors look forward to their annual spring ritual of “The Burning of the Grasses”. They have a few large clumps located far from the house, and they don’t even bother to cut them back before setting on fire. Talk about impressive!

If you should try this method, use common sense and caution. It can be a dramatic rite of spring, for sure!

Happy gardening!

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