Stop! Don’t Prune That Grass (How to Prune Ornamental Grasses Right)

How to prune ornamental grasses

How to prune ornamental grasses

Most of us know what to do with our big grasses that go dormant each winter: Grab a bungee cord, tie the grass up, and use an electric hedge trimmer to buzz the column of foliage to the ground. But what about those tricky grasses that are evergreen or ones that have a ground-hugging habit? When and how do you prune those garden staples that don’t fit neatly into the “large and goes dormant” category?

If you are hesitant to treat your sedge the same as your maiden grass, it’s for good reason. Unconventional grassy plants can’t be trimmed using generalized pruning rules. They require special timing and techniques on your part to look their best. Start by figuring out which category your grasses fall under: evergreen or goes dormant, large or small. This allows you to select the best pruning method, even if you are not sure of the exact varieties you have.

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Prune Your Hellebores: A Public Service Announcement

how-to-deadhead-hellebore.jpgLenten roses, Helleborus orientalis, are gorgeous in winter. They’re gorgeous in spring, too. But if you don’t deadhead them once they’re done blooming, they stop being gorgeous and start looking ratty. Then, they turn into spawning hellcats, dropping masses of seeds that sprout into masses of tiny, slow-growing, hard-to-remove seedlings that, yes, could theoretically turn into fresh new hellebores if you wait ten years, transplant them into better locations, and coddle them, but practically speaking, will look like weeds and use up the water and nutrients meant for your parent plant without giving anything substantial in return. Deadhead them. It’s simple: if a stalk has a bloom on it, cut the whole stalk down to the ground. You’ll be left with a lovely mass of foliage. Then, in winter, when the blooms come up, you do the opposite: cut out any stalks that are obviously last year’s leaves (there may be a few brand-new leaves coming from the base, but those are easy to spot and leave be). Your Hellebore will then look like this: helleborus orientalis pruned Easy, right? If you’re a Humboldt County local and you need help getting to all of this, give me a call. My pruning and fine perennial maintenance crew is happy to take care of all of these things at the right times of the year, so that all you have to do is relax and enjoy your space. More about Hellebores here.

Hellebore Pruning: How-To and A Cautionary Tale

how-to-prune-hellebore.jpgThere are two schools of thought on pruning Lenten rose, or Helleborus orientalis. One side says to prune off the old foliage to the very base just as the Hellebore is starting to flower. The bloom spikes start coming up in the center of the plant, and the old foliage lays down obediently: Hellebore - time to prune If you prune it at this time, your new flowers will unfurl with the naked, innocent look of a woodland bulb – all stem and bloom: pruning hellebore hellebore pruned And if your Hellebores are really plump and happy, you might not even miss the foliage: helleborus orientalis pruned Of course, some people don’t like the minimalist look on their Hellebores, and prefer to leave the foliage as long as possible: Hellebores at the SF Botanical Garden If that’s you,  just keep an eye on things and prune out the old foliage when new leaves start to come out, about two months after bloom starts. If you miss the boat and let the new foliage emerge among the old foliage and the flowers, you get a mess, and it is hard to prune out the old stuff without harming the new: IMG_9108 Hellebores are lovely, easy-care plants that rarely get a disease, but they do not like being crowded. Plants that look like the photo above often suffer snail damage, sooty mold, and whitefly, none of which will kill the plant, but sure isn’t attractive. The winter cold can kill off these pests, so if you do prune off the old foliage right away as the flowers are emerging, it takes away the hiding place of any garden snails and kills off any whiteflies or mold that may be hanging about, ready to get a foothold. Whichever way you choose to prune, you should take off your Hellebore’s old foliage between January and April, and also prune out the dead flowerheads when the flower color becomes dull and the seed pods in the center of the bloom begin to enlarge. Hellebore flowers make a lovely display in a vase, even when they’re fading, so if you’re having trouble taking the plunge, just cut them and enjoy the last couple weeks inside. They spread at an almost alarming rate via seed, coating the ground quickly with shiny baby Hellebore sprouts that are a terrible pain to remove. Unfortunately, it takes a really long time for Hellebores to do anything from seed – many years, in my experience, and the seedlings are random colors, so they may not be just what you were hoping for. That’s why I usually deadhead mine and just buy new Hellebores when I want them, so I can choose which colors and styles I actually want. Want to read more about pruning Hellebores? Frances at FaireGarden prunes hers every year and shares the process with us. More pruning tutorials here.

Fiskars PowerGear Pruning Shear: Rolling Handle Pruners That Don’t Kill Your Pocketbook

Fiskars-Pruning-Shear.jpgOne of my most popular posts has been a Hand Pruner Showdown in which I compared and contrasted Felcos, Coronas, and Bahcos. One of the first comments on that post was a Fiskars fan, saying essentially – “OMG! Try the Fiskars pruners – they’re inexpensive AND ergonomic”. And so they are! Now that I’ve tried them for myself, I’m shocked at how much I have been enjoying them. As a professional landscaper, ergonomics are incredibly important to me. I want to be able to garden for years to come with no pain or injuries, and the Fiskars PowerGear Pruner has a wonderful fat grip that is very comfortable to use. I’ve never been a fan of rolling handles on a pruner, because the handles on some brands are hard to grip and get into position. The Fiskars are the first pair that actually felt comfortable to me right away. The rolling handles are meant to help our hands bend in a natural way when pruning, and these pruners have actually gotten approved by the Arthritis Foundation for being easy on the hands. I’m already a fan of the metal that Fiskars uses on their blades and the special non-stick coating that lets the blade make cleaner cuts – I’ve been using the Fiskars PowerGear Hedgers for years – so I was happy to see it on these pruners. The only improvements I’d recommend to these pruners are a wire-cutter included on the blade, and a sap groove to help divert sap from the moving parts and keep them from sticking together. So, the good:
  • Replaceable blade
  • Easily adjustable blade tension
  • Very comfortable rolling handle
  • Good for small to average hands (even petite-handed Amy was able to prune comfortably with these)
  • PowerGear helps it cut thicker branches with less effort
  • Non-stick coating on blade
  • Very inexpensive considering the features
And the wish list:
  • Wire cutter
  • Sap groove to divert sap
  • Purple (why oh why does nobody make a pruning shear in purple? I think we should petition Fiskars to change their brand’s signature colors to purple and black. I would SO BUY THEM in purple.)
make an avatar Anyway, Fiskars was kind enough to provide two pairs to give away, so if you want to try one of these bad boys out for yourself, you know what to do: leave a comment here and over at Garden Rant and we’ll each choose a winner next week. Good luck! EDIT: Ms Green Jeans is the winner of the PowerGear Pruners! Congratulations, Ms Green Jeans! Your pruners will be on their way shortly. And if you want to get to know the nice people at Fiskars, check out their Facebook page and Twitter stream.

Video Review of Fiskars Powergear Hedging Shear

FiskarsPowergearHedgingShear.jpgIf you’ve hung around North Coast Gardening for any length of time, you know that I’m a sucker for tools that do multiple jobs well. This hedging shear is my go-to tool for cutting back perennials in fall and winter, pruning ornamental grasses and sword ferns in winter, and deadheading heathers and other plants that respond well to shearing. Yeah, you can also use it for hedging your boxwood into the shape of a rooster, if you wish. You gotta have a little fun in life, right? You can see how it works in this video: The best thing about the Fiskars Powergear Hedger is the metal used and the coating on the metal, both of which help the shears cut cleanly and stay sharp, and the gears that allow it to cut through much thicker stems than most pruning shears do (if you’ve tried using regular hedging shears to cut back perennials, you know it isn’t all that effective – the gear on this one makes all the difference!). Resources: Buy the Fiskars Hedging Shear at

Your Gardening Body: How to Prune Trees Without Strain or Pain


Anne Asher, a movement specialist from The MOVE! Blog, answers questions about how professional or passionate gardeners can reduce the strain that comes from repetitive gardening tasks. Check out her new product – great for winter time – called Clear the Blear. Here’s this month’s installment: When pruning apple and other trees in January, I often tire my shoulders using the pole pruners or sawing/ pruning above my head. Have you got any tips for easing shoulder pain while pruning trees? Hi Gen, The first thing that comes to mind is that you probably are not “in tune” with your shoulder blades, those flat triangular shaped bones located on your upper back.  Those bones are there for a reason.  When you don’t involve them in the work you do, your arms must provide all the power for the pruning.  This takes a LOT of muscle, and after a while they get so tired and sore they go on strike!  And you can feel that. [Read more...]

Pruning Miscanthus Grass: How to Cut Back Big Ornamental Grasses

DormantMiscanthusornamentalgrassabouttobepruned.jpgReady to prune your Miscanthus Grass? This is the time of year to do it! Ornamental grasses start shedding little grass bits everywhere in January, and with every windy storm they become increasingly messy until in early March you have a bunch of grass sticks still upright and grass leaves piled up everywhere in your garden BUT on your plant! You also want to prune now because if you wait too long, the new growth will begin to emerge from the base and when you whack the old growth, you’ll also trim the new shoots, which is no good. I’ve written before about how to prune ornamental grasses – which ones you ought to whack and how, and which you ought to leave be. The Miscanthus grasses are pretty much all in the “whack” category, except for M. transmorrisonensis, the Evergreen Miscanthus that still looks green and fresh in winter. You needn’t prune that one! Here’s a quick tutorial on how I prune Miscanthus Grass in winter: [Read more...]

Brrr! What NOT to Prune in Winter

Brugmansiatootendertopruneinwinter.jpgRight now it’s major big time pruning season here in Northern Cali. I’m cutting back hardy perennials, roses, fruit and other dormant trees and ornamental grasses. But there are a few things I’m leaving alone for the time being. A lot of my favorite plants are frost-tender and can be killed by a stern frost this time of year. For some of these plants, the old, dead foliage and stems are providing just an extra degree or two of protection for the tender new buds and shoots coming along for next year.
Dormant Mexican Bush Sage - Salvia leucantha
Dormant Mexican Bush Sage or Salvia leucantha
New growth on Mexican Bush Sage Salvia leucantha
See the tender new shoots inside? The old stems help protect them from frost damage.

If you can hold off, don’t prune these frost-tender plants until after last frost, which here in Humboldt County is around mid-May:

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Video Review of the Fiskars Pruning Stik, My Favorite Pole Pruner

Lightweight’s the name of the game for this pole pruner. I’ve been using these Fiskars Pruning Stiks for many years in my landscaping business and have not yet broken or had to retire one. Many pole pruners fail because they try to do too much – they have a saw, a lopper, they extend, and thus they are heavy as sin and impossible to use for any length of time. Maybe you’ve seen these pole pruner monstrosities – with a rope or chain looping from stick to lopper blade (ever get that rope caught in a branch that’s too tall to get to? UNCOOL, dudes.) and a saw that is difficult to maneuver at best and is asking for it at worst (try making a proper pruning cut from ten feet below – better yet, try guiding that branch to land someplace besides your head when you’re standing below it to prune!). This is why I like the Pruning Stik. The rope that pulls the blade closed is encased in the pole itself, so it never gets caught in trees, it cuts branches up to 1.25 inches in diameter with ease (larger if it’s soft wood), and it’s lightweight and so easy to adjust that I can prune with it for hours without getting too tired. It weighs less than two pounds! If you have vines, small trees or shrubs that need seasonal touchup, apple trees where you want to shorten last year’s shoots to encourage more fruit – anything where you’re pruning smallish branches for an extended period of time – pick up this Pruning Stik and save your body some stress. Check it out below: Resources: Buy the Pruning Stik Check out my most recent book and tool reviews here

How to Prune Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (Video Tutorial)

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is a true garden classic, especially paired with ornamental grasses, lavenders and colorful sages. It’s particularly great because during the summer when everything else is blooming, its greenish-white buds are getting bigger and bigger, creating a subtly beautiful show, then as everything else slows for the fall, ‘Autumn Joy’ bursts into bloom with a cheerful pink color that looks great with the fall colors on the other plants. [Read more...]

How to Summer-Prune a Floppy Miscanthus Grass (Video Tutorial)

I’m a big fan of ornamental grasses because they add so much motion and life to a garden. If you use multiples, they’re an easy way of bringing a sense of continuity to a busy or scattered-feeling garden, because the effect of their foliage is so soothing. Miscanthus is a favorite because it grows so fast, it’s bulletproof (just give it sunshine), and it always looks so exuberant and healthy. The downside to its enthusiastic growth is that late in the season it can start taking up more space than we imagined and begin flopping onto its neighbors. I’ve seen people take out their frustration with their Miscanthus Grass by taking their electric hedgers to it and just shearing off an entire side of the plant, so the poor thing loses the graceful movement it had and simply sits there looking shorn and attacked. Please don’t do that! In this video I’ll show you a quick way of pruning your Miscanthus Grass to make it smaller and less floppy if you are having that issue, and nobody will be able to tell you did anything except for the fact that the Miscanthus will now be smaller AND still pretty. Of course, if you’re having to summer-prune the grass every year, it might be time to either divide your Miscanthus this winter by digging it up and replanting just a smaller portion (I do this every 5 years or so), or maybe you have chosen a grass that is too big for the spot, and a more dwarf variety of Miscanthus like ‘Yaku Jima’ (4’+) or ‘Little Kitten’ (3’+) would be a better choice. I’ll add: if you love ornamental grasses the way I do and want more ideas on how to use them in your garden, you’ve GOT to get Nancy Ondra’s book Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design. Saxon Holt’s photography is simply gorgeous, and Nancy’s suggestions on how to use each grass gives me new ideas each time I read. If you liked this article, you might also enjoy learning how to winter-prune your ornamental grasses.