Published February 10, 2011 | By Robert LaHoff, Halls Garden Center & Florist

Perhaps the most famous line in English literature, Hamlet’s greatest soliloquy, inspired a sort of play on words for this title. Often asked when is the proper time to cut back ornamental grasses in the garden, I can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s words every time.

Ornamental grasses are a group of plants that I have come to love and use over the years. For me, their artistic movement offers a calming affect every time I see them in mass. Offering incredible interest year round, housing for wildlife and virtually carefree once established, ornamental grasses are also as close to “deer proof” as you’re going to get. So why do so many cut back their grasses in the late fall rather than late winter or early spring? My guess has always been because some believe them to be unsightly or unkempt if they don’t do so.

Amended soils at the time of planting and some mulch to help keep them moist are about all you need to keep your grasses happy. Most ornamental grasses are perennial, meaning they will come back every year, and should be cut back in late March, before the new growth appears. Failure to do this would delay new growth and the appearance of the grass. Moreover, when you cut your grasses back too soon, the end of autumn, you deprive wildlife the seeds and shelter they are looking for. Not to mention that the plant can no longer protect itself against the harsh elements of winter as you have denuded its dormant foliage. This dormant foliage will help shed water away from the clump, thus preventing rot. Aesthetically the winter foliage is attractive, in my opinion, offering seed heads affixed to a sort of swaying winter interest effect with wheat-colored markings throughout our coldest months in New Jersey.

When you go into the garden, at the right time of year to cut back your grasses make sure you arm yourself appropriately. One of the reasons, as I mentioned earlier, ornamental grasses are “deer resistant” is because they can be sharp. Make sure you have long pants, long sleeves and garden gloves on before you begin. Should you be blessed with a warm day in March and are eager to get your garden looking good, heed this advice! When you run your hands up the foliage or brush your legs and arms against their leaves you will thank me. For the most part a good pair of hand pruners should do the trick for single specimens. However, should you have larger groupings, I find a sickle, string trimmer or on tougher grasses even a chain saw will suffice. Something to note, some grasses develop such thick canes, loaded with silica that this could quickly dull even the sharpest of instruments.

During the months that your larger grasses are actively growing, I have found that peony rings help contain the plant, offering structure, while being concealed by the foliage. Conversely, when you go to cut down your grasses at the end of winter it is helpful to tie the heads with string as you can better see what you are cutting. This also helps with cleanup. The question I am also asked is how far back do you cut your grass? The simple answer is either two thirds of their full size or six to eight inches from the ground. Be mindful not to cut too closely to the ground, as most grasses will resent this. Finally, the issue of dividing and transplanting. Should you wish to make more plants or simply move a plant to another part of your garden, consider doing this as the new growth begins in the early spring.

Shakespeare’s words “To be, or not to be” in the literal sense relate to his own ideas of the meaning of life and death. Not taking lightly the seriousness of the topic, I have always found some comedic attachment to my thought of “To cut, or not to cut,” simply because if you cut too soon or too hard you could sacrifice the well being of your plant. Carefree plants that are deer resistant, easy maintenance, quick to root, available in assorted colors, many with attractive flower spikes… what more could you ask for?