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Caring for Ornamental Grasses

The two most common questions we get about Ornamental grasses are "When should I cut my grass back" and "How and when should I divide my ornamental grass?" This article goes through tips and techniques on cutting back and dividing grasses.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer

The two most common questions we get about Ornamental grasses are "When should I cut my grass back" and "How and when should I divide my ornamental grass?" This article goes through tips and techniques on cutting back and dividing grasses.

In recent years interest and use of ornamental grasses has exploded. Ornamental grasses can fit into almost any garden theme. Ornamental grasses lend height, movement, and long season color to the landscape. Along with the proliferation of ornamental grasses have come a host of questions on how to care for them properly. Our two most common questions are "Do I need to trim my grass back and if so when?" and "How and when should I divide my ornamental grass?" We will give you some general rules to follow when cutting back and dividing ornamental grasses.

Grasses are generally classified as cool season, warm season, or evergreen. The rules change just slightly depending on which type of grass you have. Cool-season grasses put on most of their growth in spring before temperatures begin exceeding 75 degrees Fahrenheit and in the fall when temperatures cool down. They generally maintain good color through the summer but won't grow much when it is hot. Warm-season grasses won't start growing until mid to late spring or even early summer. Their major growth and flowering happens when the weather is hot. They will usually turn shades of brown for the winter. Evergreen grasses are usually plants that look like grasses but aren't actually classified as grasses. Plants like the sedges and carex are grass-like but not grasses.

I love rules of thumb, they make life much simpler than it would otherwise be. They help make sense out of the clutter of specific information. I found ornamental grasses rather confusing until I realized that there are a few rules of thumb that pertain to most of the grasses.

First Ornamental Grass Rule of Thumb: Cut back warm season grasses in fall or by mid to late spring.

Warm season grasses turn shades of brown as the weather turns colder. Once your warm season grasses turn brown you can trim them back at almost any time. If you like to tidy your garden in fall or if you live in an area where fire can be problematic trim warm season grasses so they are just a few inches tall. If you live in an area where fire generally isn't a problem you can leave the dried grasses and seed heads in your garden for winter interest. Snow or ice encrusted ornamental grasses can be quite beautiful. If you leave the trimming until spring try to make sure to cut them back to the ground (you can leave a couple of inches) by late spring, before new growth begins. Not all ornamental grasses look good through the winter, trim back those that don't look good in the fall.

Second Ornamental Grass Rule of Thumb: Cut back cool season grasses in very early spring.

Cool season grasses tend to look good even as the weather cools. Leave their foliage in place until spring and then as soon as the snow is gone cut them back. Leave about 1/3 of the plant in place. Trimming cool season grasses too harshly can irreparably harm the plant.

Now you know when, in general, to cut back ornamental grasses. However, how are you supposed to accomplish this? First find a good pair of gloves, thick leather gloves are probably best. Some ornamental grasses can have very sharp edges. For smaller grasses a pair of pruning shears will probably be sufficient. Trim about 2/3 of the plant for cool season grasses. For many grasses it is easier to tie the grass in a bundle before trimming, this makes clean up a snap. For short grasses this might not be possible.

If you have a large, established clump of grass, pruning shears probably aren't going to be enough and gloves become essential. You may need to use a weed eater (use one with a blade rather than string), electric or gas powered hedge trimmers, or even a chain saw. Once again, tie the tops together for easier clean up, just toss the bundles in to your compost pile. If you have only one of these large grasses you can cut them back with pruning shears but it isn't easy. I know. I've done it!

Dividing grasses is one way to increase the number of plants without spending additional money. Occasional division will help grasses remain active and growing and can help renew older grasses. Some grasses, over time, will die out in the center and dividing will rejuvenate the clump.

Third Ornamental Grass Rule of Thumb: Divide warm season grasses anytime spring through mid-summer.

All ornamental grasses should be divided when they are actively growing but not while they are flowering. If the plants are dormant when they are transplanted they won't establish a good root system. Warm season grasses generally start growing in late spring or early summer and have their active growth period during the heat of the summer. Warm season grasses will tend to bloom in mid to late summer.

Fourth Ornamental Grass Rule of Thumb: Divide cool season grasses in spring or early fall.

Cool season grasses are actively growing in spring and fall. These grasses can be transplanted at either time of the year but early spring is probably the best time to divide. If you do divide them in the fall, be careful that the freeze/thaw cycles of winter don't heave the plants out of the ground, this happened to a couple of my coral bells last winter.

Fifth Ornamental Grass Rule of Thumb: Divide evergreen grasses and grass-like plants in spring only

Evergreen grasses don't ever go dormant. Dividing plants wounds them to some degree. For evergreen grasses this wounding will really affect their ability to live through the winter.

How exactly do you divide a grass? For smaller grasses it is very similar to dividing a perennial. You dig up the grass clump and then use your hands, a pair of pruning shears, a knife, or a sharp shovel or trowel to cut or pull the clump into several pieces. Make sure that each piece has some roots. Replant them before the roots dry out, you may need to cover the exposed roots to protect them on sunny days. Just a reminder that grass leaves can be very sharp, wear gloves to protect your hands. I can tell you from personal experience grass cuts can really hurt.

Larger grasses use the same basic principles but due to shear size and toughness can be harder to deal with. It can take a strong back, or three, to get some of these very large grasses out of the ground. Dig and/or pry the clump out of the ground (don't be afraid of using a crow or pry bar) and then divide it into pieces, making sure each piece has some roots. An old hand or hack saw, an axe or hatchet (it may be easier to place the axe blade in one spot and then pound it through the grass clump using a large hammer or maul, I know I can never hit the same spot twice when swinging an axe), a very sharp shovel, a reciprocating or concrete saw, or a chain saw (this won't be gentle on your grass and will tear it up a bit, a chain saw should be your last resort) can all be used to divide the plant into pieces. These big grasses are quite tough.

An alternate method would be to cut the grass to the ground then use an axe or other tool to cut it into wedges. Pry or dig the pieces out of the ground. Once these larger pieces are removed from the ground you can cut them into smaller pieces using sharp pruning shears.

If your main clump is still looking quite healthy and hasn't outgrown its space, you can replicate the plant by removing small chunks of the grass from around the outer edge. This may be easier than dividing the entire plant.

Once you have the pieces removed from the main clump, trim off any dead material, replant the pieces, and water thoroughly. Newly divided grasses will need frequent watering while they become established. Once they are well rooted you should be able to decrease or quit watering.

Now that you've pried a monster from the ground, chopped it up into little pieces and planted the pieces all over the yard. Sit down with a cool glass of lemonade and bribe your spouse or a friend into rubbing those aching muscles!

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 01/30/2017 - 7:59pm

Deer Grass, Karl Forester, and fountain grasses are all warm grasses. True? Should i cut back my deer grasses (which are quite large) every other year in the spring?

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Thu, 02/02/2017 - 12:22pm

I don't grow Deer Grass, but I do but back all of my warm season grasses either in the fall after they go dormant or in the spring, before they start active growth - or if I am behind I do it after they have just started growing, but it is best to do it before they start growing.

If your grasses are performing they way you like them to and look the way you like them to look, then you don't have to cut them back, but in general cutting them back once a year is normal.



Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 11/19/2016 - 4:03pm

My ornamental grasses are way too thick (wide). They are drowning out my other plants. When I try to divide them, the roots are like cement. A shovel doesn't work. A saw doesn't work. What can I do?

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Thu, 02/02/2017 - 12:24pm

I suppose as an absolute last resort you can opt for Round-up or some other herbicide, but I don't really think that will be necessary.  Large ornamental grasses that haven't been dug and divided in quite sometime are going to be difficult to dig up.  That is just absolutely going to be true.  

So how to dig them is the question.  You don't say where you are located and since we are headed like a freight train for December I think at this point waiting for spring is going to be the best thing to do.  One other plus of spring is that spring tends to have moisture and good moist soil shoud help make the digging easier, which isn't to say easy.  if you can't find an opportune time to dig (say 2 days after an inch of rain falls, when the soil is nice and moist, but not a mud pit, then water the ground thoroughly.  Think more along the lines of a soaker hose which will allow the moisture to sink deep into the soil, not watering by hand for a few minutes, to make digging easier.  

If it is still too difficult, and it may well be, then it is time to think about outside help.  It doesn't need to be professional help, the teenage football player down the block or your 22 year old nephew - anyone who is strong and willing - will do.  You just need somone who is willing to take directions from you and can physically handle the job.  Water well the day before though, it's the nice thing to do.

I took this question to be about the digging, but re-reading your question it could also be about dividing the root ball after you have dug up the plants.  The original title of this article was "Did You Say Use a Chainsaw?!" and it can be very appropriate.  Getting the roots moist can help some, but a chainsaw really might be needed to make good progress in dividing the grasses.  You could also just consider taking some pieces from the outer portion of the clump, replanting them in the open spots and then discarding/composting the rest of the root ball.  If you start with a smaller chunk of the grass, it will take longer for it to really get going and to fill out, but more than likely the pieces will survive.  Then remember that digging and dividing every 3 to 5 years will make the job easier....

Good Luck.


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 10/14/2016 - 2:01pm

I live in Texas Panhandle at we do get cold temp. and snow. Can get down to 0. Should I put some kind of mulch around the base of the plants and if so, what kind of mulch. Thanks, Wally

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Thu, 02/02/2017 - 12:26pm

Winter Mulch can be very helpful for protecting plants, especially in areas where snow cover isn't consistent (a continual blanket of snow is very insulating) or there are regular freeze/thaw cycles in the winter.  If your plants are comfortably within your hardiness zone, then winter mulching likely isn't necessary for suvival.  If your plants are somewhat marginal for survival in your area, then winter mulch could well be the thing that tips your plant in favor of survival.  This article covers the ins and outs of winter mulch and should be helpful:

Kerry Meyer
Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 09/18/2016 - 11:22pm

We bought a house last spring that had several clumps of what I believe is purple fountain grass. The first summer the plants were beautiful. I cut them back to 8-10 inches in winter and they came back way way bigger. The clumps are easily 6 ft wide and 5ft tall. Is there a way to cut them back or divide them so they will not be so big next year? I really like the look of them, but they are overwhelming the yard.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Mon, 10/03/2016 - 4:02pm

It can sometimes help control height to cut the plants back later in the season. Although that won't do anything for the clumps getting wider.  Digging and dividing is the best option for diminishing the overall size.


Kerry Meyer
Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 08/28/2016 - 6:55am

My ornamental grasses are coming out into my grass area in clumps. How can I get rid
of them in the grass??

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Thu, 09/01/2016 - 10:58am

Really the only option you have it to dig them out or pull them out of the grass.  Once youv'e removed the parts that encroaching on your lawn, you could try adding edging around the bed where the ornamental grasses are located.  This will act as a barrier to prevent them from entering the lawn in the future.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 08/14/2016 - 2:05pm

I have veriggated aund dark green grasses, I have cut them back n the fall but notice part of the dark green grrasss never comes back, should I leave it alone.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Mon, 08/29/2016 - 11:29am

Do you have any idea which grass it is?  Some grasses are annuals and some are perennial, so it could well be that the dark green grass is annual in your area.  Without more specifics I can't get you a better answer than that, unfortunately.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 07/25/2016 - 11:38am

Hi Kerry
I have a Purple Fountain planted on the side of my house in fairly small half moon size bed. Unfortunately it is now too large and overbearing for the space that we have in that area.
My husband wants it cut back right now but it is end of July and I don't know if you can cut it back or dig it up and separate
it this time of year. We are in south Florida and the plant is in full bloom. Can you advise?

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Wed, 08/10/2016 - 7:21am

Southern Florida is one of the few places in the US where Purple Fountain Grass is a perennial, not an annual.  Until I saw Southern Florida, my answer was going to be - leave it alone, it'll die this fall and you can start over in spring. However, that it is perennial for you changes things.  To answer your question, yes you can cut it back now and it should sprout back up.  I do think it would be a bit hard on the plant, but I also think it would bounce back.  You can also dig and divide it now, if you want, although it is not the ideal time to do so.  If you do dig and divide, be sure to keep it well watered for at least 3 weeks while it gets rooted into the surrounding soil.  

The best thing to do would be to wait until cooler weather in the fall to dig, divide and replant it.  You an also dig/divide/replant in the spring, but doing so before new growth begins is best.



Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 07/12/2016 - 8:04am

Someone at a book sale had divided their ornamental grasses and I bought about 8 plants. I in June and I did not get them in the ground yet. I have been watering them but then the heat we have had this past week they are now brown and dried up. My husband says throw away they are dead. I whave hope. I prepared their planting bed last night and still want to save them - should i plant them? will they renew their strength and color - or did I just totally blow it

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Wed, 07/20/2016 - 8:03am

I would go ahead and plant them.  You have the bed ready to take them.  They can root in and be fine even in the heat.  It is certainly possible, that they aren't going to make it - maybe even probable, but at this point you really have only the work of planting and watering left to do.  Unless you have something else  you want to plant in that area right now, I see no reason not to try...


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 07/02/2016 - 7:56am

Is it normal for the transplanted grass to yellow or go dormant after planting? I split my large grass into 4 and planted, all turned from healthy green to a dormant look. Thanks

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 07/12/2016 - 4:45pm

If you were transplanting in late fall, I could see the plants going dormant. However, if you transplanted in July or late June - which based on when you submitted this question, I am going to guess you did - then I would not expect them to go dormant. While plants can be dug and divided in the heat of summer, caring for them is much more difficult. The plants will need to be kept consistently moist for at least two weeks, although a month would be best, to allow the roots to get re-established. This is complicated by the fact that the root ball of the divided plant is the part that must stay moist, even if the surrounding soil is moist, if the bit of soil that came with the original plant is dry, then your plant is drought stressed. This is true because the roots of the transplanted plant are only within that original soil ball, they have not yet grown into the surrounding soil to get access to water in surrounding soil. My guess is that your plants got too dry and the plants went dormant. Don't despair, yet. Start watering and see if they come back from that dormant state... Good luck.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 06/30/2016 - 1:50pm

I planted two Miscanthus Sinensis (Gracillimus) in early spring and they are doing fine but I want to plant one more of this variety in the same garden bed. Should I wait until fall or next spring or may I plant now ( end of June ). I live in Chicago - Illinois.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Thu, 06/30/2016 - 3:02pm

You can, it will just take more vigilance to keep it happy.  The thing you'll need to do is make sure you don't allow it too get to dry.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 04/26/2016 - 2:19pm

Can more than one piece of a divided ornamental grass be planted in the same hole to create a larger plant?
Or should the divided pieces always be used to create individual plants?

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Tue, 05/24/2016 - 10:02am

Yes, you can put more than one piece of the divided grass in the same hole so that the plant starts out larger.  It might be a bit easier if you simply left larger pieces when you divide the plant, rather than using more than one in a hole.  But either should work fine.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 04/13/2016 - 5:58pm

Thanks for your article. I just divided at 5 foot diameter ornamental grass into quarters to replant.

Do I need to "shape up" the plantings or just leave them wedge-shaped? Does it matter?

The original plant grew to six feet tall every year. Any idea how tall the new plantings will get this year?

How long will it take for the new ones to look like their momma which was planted by previous owners eighteen years ago?

Thanks for your help. Ann

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Mon, 04/25/2016 - 4:08pm

I really don't think you need to trim them up, but doing so might help the fiinal plants look more symmetrical, so depending on how important that is to you, you can leave them or shape as desired. 

I would expect their height to be pretty similar to the original plant this year.  Most Ornamental grasses come back froom the roots each season so there is no reason to believe the height won't be similar as it has been in the past.

It will take a while for them to slowly grow in diameter...

Kerry Meyer
Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 10/17/2015 - 4:31pm

We have a 2nd home in Moab, UT and planted a lot of ornamental grasses. Two varieties are Karl Forester and Heavy Metal but i can't recall the names of the others. We absolutely love them; they add so much to the interest of our yard. My s
problem is they are on a drip in berms mixed with high water plants so the grasses have gotten enormous and are choking out the other perennials. Is it too late to dig them up and thin (divide) them now? One variety has started turning brown. Thank you!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 10/10/2015 - 10:08am

I have five containers with a different grass in each pot sitting on my deck. They were planted in April and have flourished!
Now that winter is coming what do I do to protect them, I know you cut them down in spring but what to do to winterized them.

Sandy Wentworth's picture
Sandy Wentworth Mon, 10/12/2015 - 11:17am

This depends if they are annual grasses or perennial grasses and what state you are in.

If they are perennial grasses it is too late in the season to plant them so they can be kept in a shed or garage watering once a month.

Annual grasses would need to be kept inside, they get messy and still go dormate so they can get unsightly.

Sandy Wentworth

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 09/27/2015 - 3:39pm

I don't have a good place to dispose of lawn waste.
Will ornamental grasses die if not cut back yearly?

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Mon, 09/28/2015 - 5:02pm

They won't die, they'll just have a tendency to look unsightly.  The yearly clean up (evergreen types are the exceptions) keeps them looking more tidy and increases ornamental value.

Kerry Meyer
Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 08/26/2015 - 11:02pm

I inherited about 20 grasses that were watered regularly, but are brown from being left in their original nursery containers all summer. The roots seem okay and there are a few green blades. Will they survive if I plant them now? If so, how should I plant them and care for them to give them the best odds? Thanks so much for your expertise!

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Thu, 08/27/2015 - 1:37pm

If they are green and growing and you transplant them now they should be fine.  Make sure you loosen the soil around where you are planting each grass, this will it easier for roots to get established in the landscape. Also, make sure that you keep them well-hydrated, especially while the weather is hot.  Once it cools off, be sure you don't over-water.  Early in fall is a great time to plant perennials, shrubs, trees and grasses.  Annuals that can take a hard frost (violas, pansies, osteospermum, diascia, nemesia, argyranthemum to name a few) will bloom for weeks or in some cases months.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 08/02/2015 - 5:26pm

i bought a house in late spring and the grasses weren't cut back. Now they're getting pretty big for the space and have seeded. Do I need to wait until September/October to cut the, back? Thanks!!

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Mon, 08/03/2015 - 3:03pm

It would be best if you can wait to cut them back hard until fall.  However, some trimming to keep them looking tidy or to not allow them to overtake neighbors is fine.  Just don't cut them back to the ground, if you can help it.  They might be OK in the end, but it would be really stressful for them.


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 07/25/2015 - 1:33pm

I planted several Avalanche grasses about a month ago. They get afternoon sun only. I water them whenever the ground seems dry. They haven't grown at all. Before I planted these, I had planted Overdam in the same spot and in 10 weeks time there was very minimal growth. Is this normal? Can I expect full growth eventually? I live in South Dakota.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Mon, 08/03/2015 - 3:05pm

I would say this is pretty normal especially since you planted them in summer.  The plants are putting their energy into growing roots instead of shoots at this time.  I wouldn't be surprised if they don't seem to change much this summer, but take off next spring.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 07/06/2015 - 11:19am

I really like this article.
What would have been really helpful, is if you would have also written the names of some cool season grasses, warm season grasses, evergreen grasses, and Sedges, etc. that look like grasses, but aren't truly a grass. I bought a house that has some grasses that I'm not sure of which type they are, when and how to trim them, or how to best divide them. If I had some names of ornamental grasses & sedges, I could look them up and find out what mine are for certain so that I am treating them the best possible.
This spring, I cut back an evergreen grass, probably by too much because it is most definitely, "Wounded" from it now.
Thank you.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Tue, 07/07/2015 - 2:24pm

Thank you for the suggesion.  We include the classification neutral/warm season/cool season information within each of the grass records in our system.  However, adding them into the article would make sense too.


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 06/06/2015 - 5:27pm

We split and transplanted a grass and it's growing but very slowly. Not like the others. Any suggestions??

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Fri, 06/12/2015 - 9:50am

From your question, I think you are comparing the growth rate of a grass that was recently divided to ones that were not recently divided.  If that is the case, then it is not unexpected for a newly divided and transplanted grass to grow more slowly than those that weren't recently divided and transplanted.  The newly divided one is growing new roots in addition to top growth, because energy is divided between roots and shoots, it is growing more slowly.


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 08/17/2012 - 3:04pm

I've found that rather than cutting back by making a flat cut level with the ground, that if I cut the grass in a pineapple or pinecone shape, the new growth blends in better.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 04/05/2012 - 6:43am

If you dig the center out of older grass it will keep its shape & grow back with renewed vigor.

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