Edit Template

How to Ignite Your Garden Beds for Spring: “Fire Farming” Ornamental Grasses & Pruning Perennials


Oh the Sunlight!  Just when you think you can’t take the darkness anymore, we turn the clocks. Happy Daylight Savings Time. 

With the days getting longer; the ground starting to thaw, it’s only natural that our thoughts turn to gardening. 

But before you start planting anything, especially annuals ~ I recommend you follow my planting guideline that I practice for my gardens and with my garden design team at the clients’ ~ and that is to refrain from planting until after Mother’s Day. There could be an overnight frost.

For now, it’s key to prepare the plants and the beds.

And it’s always a good time to weed!

In an era of increasing climate chaos – the traditional early spring pruning of ornamental grasses and when to prune the spent perennials can be a moving target.  

Regardless, Spring in cool climates remains the time to prune ornamental grasses.  But traditional spring is at best hard to get a handle on.  One day it’s warm, then it’s not. 

I had to smile reading the marquee at the local village theater the other day!  I share the pain. And the “joke.” No laughing matter, though… 

Here I’m talking about the ornamental grasses that go from green to golden straw in the winter.  And the spent perennials. 

Too often, folks let the “mow, blow, & go” guys cut them down in early winter or late autumn.  

It’s better to let them stay for the winter. I leave the grasses in place for the cold season in my own garden and my clients’ as well.  

The birds, insects, and other pollinators appreciate you leaving them in place for a variety of reasons, including food and shelter.  

In addition, the grasses look glamorous in the winter landscape – capturing snow and glistening bits of ice.  And the sun glittering through the silvery inflorescence… The seedpods are scintillating sculptures. Stalks and stems provide a safe haven for larvae. And when was the last time you saw a frog?

    2015-12-12 11.03.22.jpg

  2015-12-28 16.31.45.jpg

One can also use the golden winter grasses to tie up a fig, as my client did.  Beautiful. 

Summer Winter

I designed these corner-pocket, tiered and raised beds for a client. Physically, he couldn’t get to the beach, so I brought the beach to him! Plus, it’s a design for tricky corners, adding beauty and privacy. In every season. 

Plus, the ornamentals marry up with a variety of plant companions that continue to look dazzling in the autumn and winter landscape.

2016-09-23 11.19.17.jpg  

2016-09-23 11.21.39.jpg    

“Grass is the forgiveness of nature — her constant benediction. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.” (John James Ingalls)

2016-09-23 11.21.56.jpg

I hope I can encourage you to recalibrate your garden design aesthetic so that you can embrace the seasonal beauty of ornamental grasses in the winter. 

The added benefit to leaving the grasses is that you are contributing to a healthy ecosystem. You can create a haven for wildlife.

Letting flowers go to seed and leaving them over the winter nourishes many birds, but “not all birds eat seeds,” says Kim Eierman, author of The Pollinator Victory Garden. “We’ve got nectivores and frugivores and omnivores and carnivores, so we really need to think about making our landscapes more of a buffet for wildlife.” 

You can be a proud plant parent and a critter 

The time to clean up the garden is not in the autumn, rather in the Spring.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant… Ecclesiastes.

Yes, it’s almost time to plant.  But first, let’s think about the garden clean up. Wait as long as you can.  Cutting down the dead plant stems too early in the spring will disturb them before they have a chance to emerge… 

I can see some green growth now. (Not to be confused with spring bulbs and ephemerals.) Here, I’m talking about seeing the green growth from the perennials popping through the winter leaf mulch cover. Ideally, you should wait until the daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees for at least seven consecutive days.

My horticultural experience with ornamental, clump grasses in our Zone 7 is to prune or cut back in mid March to April.  

How to Prune Perennial Stalks and Stems

This is easy. Just take your sharpened, clean, snips and cut the spent winter stalks/stems down to the base. You can then compost them. 

How to Prune the Ornamental Grasses

The grasses can be tied at several points: the top, and along the grass stems to prevent the cut dead material from blowing away. This makes removal easier.   

The bundled plant removal insures that the new green shoots can emerge and grow to full, robust stature on the ornamental grasses new, seasonal growth. 

You can also divide the grasses – just like a perennial. 

Fire Farming ~ Tips for Ornamental Grass Maintenance: Prune with Fire 

The more mature ornamental grasses can be compromised with just a straight-away cut in the Spring.  What I call “Fire Farming” or burning of the grasses is most beneficial. 

2016-04-17 12.41.14.jpg

I learned this technique from Chanticleer Garden’s Bill Thomas at a New York Botanical Garden lecture.  

As an aside, I have to add – Bill Thomas was ever so kind to my family: providing a most memorable Chanticleer-guided tour following a family wedding at Villanova the day before. So coming in on a Sunday was a true courtesy.  I’m sure Bill did it as horticulture love as I was then the vice president of Communications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Nevertheless, I was astonished that he was our garden guide!   We’re forever grateful — still talking about it, as a matter of fact.  And as a result of that tour, me and my husband, Bill, were so inspired by the beauty of the asparagus and its lovely fronds and delicious spring edibles – we’ve grown it ever since.  The asparagus plant fronds come up after the edible asparagus stalks and are beautiful ~ like ornamental grasses. A four-season beauty.  

Who started the Burning of Ecosystems?

With regard to the ornamental grasses and Chanticleer’s burning of the grasses – Bill explained it’s an ancient Native American tradition the Gardeners learned.  

I further researched and found that Native Americans long practiced a kind of “Fire Farming” – and according to Native Tech, “…often beginning with a prayer or ceremony to attract positive energies….” to: “Improve growth and yields – Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries, and huckleberries), and tobacco.

And further: 

“Burning to establish or keep … resource diversity, environmental stability… and maintenance…”

Why should you do it? Why bother “Fire Farming” your ornamental grasses?  For the same reasons.  Burning provides a healthier growing condition for the grass to continue a round, summer green girth growth.

It helps eliminate or mitigate the “donut hole” that can develop over time with ornamental grasses in bloom.  

How will you know when to pursue “Fire Farming?”  When the grasses continue to grow “around”  the clump.  Over time, that kind of circular growth diminishes the robust look and health of the grass.

Maintenance ~ How To Guide:

So here’s a quick How-To for burning your ornamental grasses in order to keep them healthy and looking their best.   

Not unlike the Native Americans, you may want to start your Fire Farming with a prayer! Seriously – the good horticulture procedure takes attention, safety precautions are a must, but it’s easy – and even a bit fun.  The new growth can more readily emerge with the burning process. 

You’ll need: 

  • String

  • Electric pruners

  • Hand-held propane Torch

  • Water hose with sprayer

  • Long sleeves and gloves


  • Monitor the weather reports and choose a day that is not windy

  • Tie up the stems or culms, and top with string and cut the grasses at ground level.  Take the spent stems to your town’s recycling center or compost if you can.  (these stems will not break down quickly!)

  • Use the propane torch to burn the center of the grasses.  This may take a few attempts.  Don’t expect to get an even burn all at once.  Torch or burn in small stages, making your way around the grass’ center. 

 2016-04-17 12.42.42.jpg

  • When finished, douse with water from the hose you have placed near the operations.  Use the water if the flames do burn too high or start to spread.  But remember, once you wet the grass, you can’t burn it again until it dries.

2016-04-17 12.41.29.jpg

Here’s a video of Bill burning the grasses. 

So there you have it.  An historical – and easy – way to nurture your ornamental grasses to achieve longer, healthier plant life and better growth.  The ornamental grasses add such beauty to the landscaped garden, providing texture, color, and architectural structure…  

A few tips on Landscaping with Grasses from Digital Commons at USA Education, courtesy of JD Gunnell. 

Plant now for impact in the garden in every season.

Grasses for impact:

Andropogon gerardii (Big bluestem)

Arundo donax ‘Variegata’ (Giant reed)

Calamagrostis x acutiflora (Feather reed grass) 

Miscanthus sinensis (Japanese silver grass)

Panicum virgatum (Switch grass)

Pennisetum alopecuroides (Fountain grass)

Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem)

Grasses as a groundcover:

 Bouteloua gracilis (Blue grama)

 Buchloe dactyloides (Buffalo grass)

Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge) – 

Hierochloe odorata (Sweet grass)

Koeleria macrantha (Prairie June grass)

Grasses for shade:

 Carex sp. (Sedges)

 Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern sea oats) – 

Deschampsia sp. (Tufted hair grass)

Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass)

Milium effusum (Wood millet)

Grasses for dry sites:

Andropogon gerardii (Big bluestem)

 Blepharoneuron tricholepsis (Pine dropseed) – 

Bouteloua gracilis (Blue grama)

Elytrigia elongata (Tall wheatgrass)

 Koeleria macrantha (Prairie June grass)

 Leymus cinereus (Basin wild rye)

 Nassella viridula (Green needle grass)

 Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem)

 Sorghastrum nutans (Indian grass)

Enjoy the garden glamour of ornamental grasses!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Trending Posts


"Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

Join me to celebrate a romantic, garden-infused, entertaining lifestyle filled with artful design, sparkling dinner parties, peerless martinis, and copious magnums of champagne!





Edit Template

Engage & Inspire

Join Ladies Who Lunch Conversations

Join me & my artful guests to explore the captivating, candid, & inspiring stories about their extraordinary lives, passions, careers; their meditation on life~that is sure to enrich ours. These inspiring women share challenges & tips on how to turn a dream into a well-lived life.

Copyright © 2024 Garden Glamour by Duchess Designs

Website Development by Literary Inspired