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Pampas grass mysteries

By Al Cooke, Ag Extension agent
Posted Monday, January 15, 2007

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Pittsboro, NC - The BEST way to deal with Pampas grass is largely a matter of opinion. Some would suggest Roundup. You may hear various opinions from landscapers; it’s a plant most of them do not like to deal with this time of year.

Do Nothing: this is certainly an option and will have little impact on the health of the plant. It has the advantage of allowing recycling of nutrients that were stored in the foliage. The leaves will be slow to break down so the nutrient release may be delayed a year or more. This method has the disadvantage of being less attractive in some opinions. As the new foliage appears, the old foliage tends to just lie down around the base of the plant like a worn collar. It also restricts air movement around the base of the plant. Air movement tends to retard development of fungal pathogens. But fungi are seldom a problem in this area of the plant. New growth will be slower than for plants that are cut back as the old foliage restricts warming from the sun in spring.

Fire: This is one I never recommend.

Advantages include quick and easy.

Disadvantages include risk of fire getting out of control and the displeasure of family members who have to find a new place to sleep tonight, not to mention neighbors who really don’t care for the charred look on the wooden fence. There’s also the potential of the heat actually damaging the plant (although I’ve never observed that to happen).

Cut It Back: This one has the disadvantage of being labor intensive and abusive to the labor force. The serrated edges of the blades are rather sharp. It doesn’t look much better when it’s done. But, for advantages, as days lengthen, the capacity of the sun to warm the clump is enhanced since the old foliage is out of the way. You tend to get earlier growth that will more quickly cover the “stump.”

If you choose to cut it back consider a strategy that some landscapers use. Start with good leather gloves and heavy long sleeves. Cover any other exposed skin. Take a piece of rope and lay it on the ground around the plant. Tie a loop so that you can create a lasso and raise it up encircling the plant. Eventually with a bit of effort you create a ponytail appearance. This will facilitate clean up once the foliage is cut.

You will find various tools used for cutting, most of which are unsatisfactory in some way. Weed trimmer, machete, hand clippers. Perhaps this is the best use for electric shears. With the plant tied up, the shears will readily cut through the grass with minimal human effort. Cut only to the dense inner crown of the plant where the blades spread out. The living crown is actually above ground within that inner core. If you cut it to ground level, you will probably create a very slow recovery.

Once the cutting is done, the rope can then be used to drag the foliage to a compost pile, the edge of the woods, or other disposal method. The disadvantage to the electric shears is the hundreds of small pieces of “grass chips” about 2 inches long that litter the ground and are hard to clean up. A good way to deal with those is to cover them with some fresh mulch. Or remove the old mulch first and then rake it back over the debris.

If you choose cutting back, watch the weather and do it as late as possible before new growth emerges. The old foliage insulates against possible injury from severe cold. And once you cut it back the stump can be rather unattractive before new growth covers it.

The other main problem I find with pampas grass is its tendency to die out in the middle. Landscapers call it doughnutting; the plant becomes a ring with a dead hole in the center. The best way I know to deal with that is to dig the plant up, divide it into half a dozen clumps and use them to bribe or threaten your neighbors.

Warning – the clump may be rather deeply rooted. Prepare to spend a good bit of time and energy on it.

In general this plant doesn’t need much attention until it needs some. When it does need attention, it needs a lot of it.

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