Should You Really Cut Back Your Native Grass in the Winter?

Does your landscaping look stark and boring in the winter? It doesn’t have to if you just leave cutting back your ornamental grass until spring!

Many people cut back their clumps of ornamental native grasses as soon as they go dormant in the fall, or in early winter. Here at the nursery, we don’t cut back anything until late February at the earliest. Instead of cutting back your native grasses this winter, try leaving them instead and observe what happens. Read on to learn the benefits of leaving those clumps for the winter!

Why do People Cut Back their Grasses in the Fall?

For many gardeners, it’s part of fall cleanup to cut back any perennials in the garden. While this may make your yard look “tidier,” is it really necessary to do it right at the beginning of winter?

For most people, it’s just something they’ve been taught to do or something they think they need to do. Usually, they throw the clippings onto a bonfire or put them into the municipal leaf pickup along with every last one of the leaves that falls in their yard.

What they don’t realize is that this is both wasteful and unnecessary!

Any form of dead vegetation, at least the normal year’s vegetation that of plants that go dormant in the winter, supplies cover and shelter for wildlife and helps to provide organic matter to the soil, enriching it and increasing the beneficial soil microbes.

What are the Benefits of Leaving Grasses Standing Over the Winter?

Dormant Grass Clumps and Wildlife

Those dormant clumps of ornamental grass are a great hiding place for songbirds and small animals. Some insects overwinter as eggs on standing vegetation as well, and this isn’t a bad thing. Though they may feed on the plants in the summer, they offer food for the larvae of pollinators and for birds.

Many ground-foraging birds (Sparrows, Juncos, Robins, etc.) find it very difficult to get adequate food in the winter, especially if they’re in an area that receives a lot of snowfall. Clumps of standing ornamental grass provide two purposes – Food and Shelter.

These ground-foraging birds live on seeds in the winter, and the seedheads of many native grasses hold their seeds over the winter. With this source of food, birds are able to find enough food to stay alive, and they’ll stick around your yard longer, possibly even nesting the following season. Standing clumps of grass also offer shelter and protection for the birds, giving them a sense of security as they forage between the clumps and on the ground.

Landscape Interest

It’s no question that the North American landscape looks fairly bleak and drab in the winter – Especially in the northern half of North America. In the depths of a Northern Winter, it’s nice to have something outside that says yes, there really is life under that endless expanse of white out there.

Grasses that hold their form in the winter are a great source of winter interest in landscaping, and many native grasses turn a range of warm colors that look beautiful highlighted by the winter sun or decorated with frost and snow. Grasses also add a living element to the drab winter landscape, rustling in the wind and humming with activity from songbirds, rabbits and other small animals seeking food and shelter.

You may notice that most public arboretums and gardens leave their grasses for the winter, and this is recommended in most landscaping textbooks. First, it helps remember where the grasses are planted, and second, it helps to maintain an alive, landscaped look in the winter when everything is dormant.

A cool utilitarian tip for native grasses – Plant them alongside your driveway and you won’t have to put in those red and white driveway markers for when the snow falls! If you plant the clumps thick enough, you shouldn’t have any trouble with snow drifting across your driveway, a problem we often get out in open rural areas in the Midwest.

Wind Reduction

The winter landscape, at least in the Midwest, is a very cold and windy landscape. You can use clumps of native grasses to break the wind, especially taller prairie grasses. Not only do they help to filter the wind, they also have a pleasing rustling sound whenever the wind blows through them.

Plant a staggered planting of switchgrass in front of your windbreak, and it will greatly help the efficiency of it; it’s especially helpful for newly planted windbreaks that don’t do a whole lot of wind reduction for the first 5 years.

Easy Cleanup

Grasses are still very tough when they’ve just gone dormant. The foliage still has a lot of cellulose in it, making it difficult to cut through and clean up.

After being exposed to the wind, rain, snow and sun over the winter, the foliage is a lot easier to break up in the spring. A stout stick does the job decently by that point, or you can often put on a pair of gloves and knock off the vegetation with a brush of the hand.

When Should I Cut Back My Ornamental Grasses?

While we definitely advocate leaving the clumps standing for the winter, you do eventually have to cut everything back in the spring or you run the risk of your garden looking fairly “let go” as the new growth starts growing up through the last year’s vegetation.

You want to cut back the grasses after they’ve served their winter purpose, but before new growth starts in the spring. We always target March 1 for Central Indiana, as long as there’s no snow on the ground – The past few years we’ve gotten a heavy snow at the end of March, but it doesn’t really matter by that point. All of the grasses start growing in April so you definitely want to have the garden cleaned up by then.

How do I Cut Back Native Ornamental Grasses?

As mentioned earlier, vegetation is a lot more brittle after it’s been left to a winter in the elements. We always just take a hedge trimmer to our clumps of grasses and run through the clumps 3 times, with the final cut at 3" above the soil line.  This helps to break up the grasses into smaller pieces, helping them break down more quickly and making the clippings more manageable to spread around.

Speaking of hedge trimmers - I really like the new GreenWorks power tools, and we have a whole arsenal of them at the nursery!  If you've got a larger yard and want to make quick work of knocking down plant stubble in your garden or landscape, I highly suggest getting a GreenWorks 24-Inch hedge trimmer. This has been a huge timesaver for us, especially since we are always so busy in the nursery! We used to use a plug-in hedge trimmer, but it was so cumbersome that we usually just ended up using old-fashioned hand trimmers. The new GreenWorks trimmer cuts our cleanup time down by at least half! If you want to learn more about these, they are quite affordable on Amazon. Click here to hop over there and see the current price.

In areas that are less "landscaped," further away from the main nursery area, we usually just run through quickly with a stout wood stick, roughly knocking down the standing stems. In habitat improvement areas, we don’t worry too much about getting every last stem down, as these areas are more preferable to leave as minimally maintained as possible.

What Should I do with the Clippings?

This is a somewhat little-used trick for dealing with any landscape leaves and clippings. This material makes great mulch, containing ample organic matter. Instead of carting in truckloads of dyed shredded pallets (i.e. “mulch,” according to most garden centers in our area), you can use the organic matter that is generated in your own garden.

After clipping everything back, just scatter the clippings over the area – Though they may be noticeable at first, by the time the new growth emerges they’ll be completely obscured. An easy way to get them easily spread around is to hit the piles with the back of a leaf rake. The metal tines do a good job of spreading the clippings evenly, making for a uniform mulch. Over the season they’ll rot down nicely, greatly contributing to the soil structure and adding nutrients!

Hopefully we’ve convinced you to leave the grass standing for the winter this year! You’ll be rewarded manifold with a vibrant landscape full of birds, insects, small animals and rustling grasses.

Also, you’ll be the only one on the block that doesn’t have to look at a blank sheet of white snow all winter – instead, you’ll have a nice garden of dormant vegetation to remind you of the successful season past and the promise of spring!