How, Why, and When to Cut Bunch Grasses: California’s Central Coast
In the Central Coast California Landscape, bunchgrasses are a common landscape element. In some cases, huge swaths of showy grasses can be a bold botanic display of texture, movement, and glowing color. A bunch grass is a perennial grass that forms clumps as it grows. They can be as small as six inches or as large as eight feet tall, usually selected for their foliage and seed head plumage. On the central coast, most species are maintained by a significant yearly haircut to prepare for the next year’s growth.
When to Cut Bunch Grasses
Most bunch grasses are cut back so they look green and fresh for the next growing season, as well as clear out dead foliage and debris for plant health. While some grasses won’t need to be cut back every year, some benefit from being cut back twice or more per year. For yearly cutbacks, the rule of thumb is to cut them back after the last hard frost. Winter foliage can be attractive even if it is brown, and it protects the plant crown from frost damage. If the grass is particularly frost sensitive, the timing should be as late in the winter as possible. In San Luis Obispo County, we tend to be split our grass cut-back timeframes between the beaches (Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Cambria, Los Osos, etc.), the coastal valleys (San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Edna, Nipomo, etc.) and North County (Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, Santa Margarita).
Grass cutbacks can start earliest on the beach zones because they have almost no frost and grasses start to grow even in the winter. December-January is good for most grasses along our beach towns. With the lack of frost, many more species of grass can be grown, such as Pennisetum setaceum rubrum, a beautiful Purple Fountain Grass. “Some grasses won’t show as much winter browning, so skipping their yearly cutbacks from time to time is acceptable. Because the growing season is so long, the window to cut back grasses is also more forgiving. Cutting browning grasses as late as March or April is better than not cutting them at all.”
In the coastal valleys, February is a great month to cut back grasses, but it can happen anytime between January and March. There is limited frost, so grasses such as the Purple Fountain Grass may want to wait until March, but most grasses are completely safe for a February cut. This zone is very similar to the beaches, but it may take a little longer for the grasses to green back up, hence the later cut.
North County of San Luis Obispo County is much different than the rest of the county. The Santa Lucia Mountain Range separates it from ocean influence, making it much colder in the winter. For that reason, the cutbacks occur later to wait for the hard frosts to subside. In addition, most grasses in north county don’t start pushing new growth until April. February through April is the window for north county grass cutbacks, with March being an ideal month. While April is okay, cutting back the grasses after the spring flush should be avoided. While grass species are more limited in North County due to the cold, the explosive growth of the hot summer and the seasonal look of brown winter plumage can be stunning.
The bottom line for timing of grass cutbacks is to maximize the aesthetics and health of the plants. Try to minimize the downtime of a cut back bunch grass stump by waiting until the plant is just about to push new growth. Fine-tune the specific timing for your zone and grasses over the years to maximize your enjoyment of these versatile plants.
How to Cut Back Bunch Grasses
- Use sharp shears, pruners, hedgers, or bladed weed whackers to cut all blades and chutes as close to the ground as possible without damaging the crown of the plant.
- Hand pull any loose debris or dead plant material to prevent crown rot and allow for more air circulation.
- Pull back any mulch or debris at least 2” from the crown of the grass.
Recommended Pruning Heights for Various Species
LOW: 2-4” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Festuca spp., Carex spp., Sesleria spp., Acoris spp., Juncus spp., Nassella spp., Melica spp., Bouteloua spp., Aristida spp., Calamagrostis spp., Muhlenbergia cappilaris, Ophiopogon spp., Stipa spp., Helictotrichon spp., Anemanthele spp., Pennisetum spp. (smaller varieties).
Non-Grass Species: Achillea spp., Zauschneria (Epilobium) spp., Nepeta spp., Teucrium spp., Coreopsis spp., Thymus spp., Erigeron spp., Salvia spathacea.
MEDIUM: 4-8” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Muhlenbergia rigens, Muhlenbergia dubia, Miscanthus spp. (small to medium varieties), Pennisetum spp. (larger varieties), Leymus spp.,
Non-Grass Species: Penstemon spp. (smaller varieties), Artemisia spp., Origanum spp.,
HIGH: 8-12” tall dome as final product.
Grass Species: Miscanthus spp. (larger varieties), Muhlenbergia dumosa, Cortaderia spp., Kniphofia spp.
Non-Grass Species: Penstemon spp. (larger varieties), Salvia spp. (some smaller varieties), Gaura spp., Lavandula (smaller varieties), Ribes spp., Perovskia spp., Eriogonum (smaller varieties).
Carex divulsa (LOW)
Muhlenbergia rigens (MEDIUM)
Top tips for selecting
a landscape maintenance team
From weekly to seasonal maintenance, to event preparation, or landscape enhancements: here are the top questions to ask to ensure you hire a licensed professional who will meet your needs.
1. How long have you been in business?
A company that has been in business
ten years or more is likely a reliable, trustworthy contractor. Whether you are
a homeowner who needs weekly maintenance or a commercial property owner who
needs pest control, check the company’s portfolio to see whether they have
expertise on projects like yours.
Madrone Landscapes has been in business for over 40 years. We offer weekly gardening services for residential clients in North San Luis Obispo County and estate maintenance for the broader San Luis Obispo County, Northern Santa Barbara County, and Southern Monterey County. We also offer high quality commercial, municipal, and HOA maintenance services for all of San Luis Obispo County.
2. What kind of insurance and licensing do you have?
Your landscaping company should
have workers compensation insurance, general liability insurance, bonded
workers and appropriate state licensing. For weed, pest, and disease control,
your maintenance contractor will need to be spray certified.
Madrone Landscapes has workers compensation insurance and general liability insurance. Our landscape maintenance crews are bonded, and we maintain a California state landscape contractor license.
3.Do you have specialists on staff?
Professional landscaping firms will
employ experts with degrees in landscape architecture and horticulture. They
should have expertise in landscape irrigation, as well as thorough knowledge of
the type of plants you have growing in your landscape design.
At Madrone Landscapes, our degreed and trained landscape designers and horticulturists establish and maintain our clients’ landscapes in superior condition. Our landscape maintenance teams are led by Taryn Via, Maintenance Manager. With a background in property management, Taryn has over 13 years of experience working directly with homeowners, HOAs, and commercial property owners.
4.What services do you offer?
Homeowners, commercial property owners, and HOAs all require different services for different properties. Ensure the company you hire provides the services you require. Traditionally, maintenance projects may include mowing and editing, irrigation repair, fertilizing, dead-heading, and mulching. Larger projects may need specialized maintenance at different intervals throughout the year. Consider whether you need seasonal maintenance, event preparation, and/or regular landscape enhancement.
5.How do your maintenance crews practice sustainability? Do you offer alternatives to chemicals?
If sustainability is important to you, be
sure to ask about alternatives to fertilizer and chemicals. Companies at the
forefront of landscaping will employ methods such as compost tea fertilizer,
integrated pest management, and organic fertilizers, ensuring your yard is a
safe and healthy place for your family.
At Madrone Landscapes, we are known for sustainable practices. We focus on plant health and the effective use of water. Our Healthy Gardens program introduces organic methods to fertilizer and weed, pest, and disease control.
6.Can you provide us with an estimate?
A professional landscape contractor will
provide you an estimate tailored to your individual needs. After visiting your
project, listening to your needs and requirements, they will ask you questions
to determine your exact needs.
Madrone Landscapes provides a customized written estimate for each project.
7.What does my contract include?
Once you’ve accepted your estimate, your
landscape contract will provide you a contract outlining what to expect on each
visit, ranging from weekly maintenance to seasonal maintenance, plant
replacement, and irrigation repairs.
At Madrone Landscapes, each contract is different – just like each project. Once we’ve discussed your estimate, we put together a custom contract specifically for you.
8. How do you communicate with clients?
Will you have an account manager assigned
to you? Will they call you to schedule appointments, or simply send notices in
Our Maintenance Manager, Taryn Via, is the one point of contact for our maintenance clients.
9. Will you provide references?
In addition to checking Yelp to see how the company ranks, ask for references, including addresses. Check the properties to see if they are maintained at the level you expect for your own property, whether residential or commercial. Madrone Landscapes recently was awarded “Top-rated Local” for ranking in the top-five landscape companies in the state for customer satisfaction.
We are happy to provide a list of references for you to call and testimonials for your review!
Do you have additional
questions? Call us at the office and ask for Taryn Via, Maintenance Manager at (805)
It’s a perfect day to Meet the Team! This March, we are showing some love to our amazing Maintenance Manager: Taryn Via! As head of our Maintenance department, Taryn works incredibly hard to make sure all of our current and prospective maintenance clients are well taken care of, and she does a great job! While she is often out in the field, Taryn’s warm and friendly presence is always felt at our office. They say that dogs can sense a person’s character, and all the office dogs (both regulars and visitors) flock to her office – that says a lot right there! Get to know more about Taryn below!
- How long have you been working at Madrone? I started at Madrone in May 2018
- What is your favorite thing about working at Madrone? I love the fun, family atmosphere
- What is your favorite, or least favorite, plant and why? Favorite plant/tree is the Albizia Julibrissin because of the broad, silky leafs and bright flowers. It reminds me of a tropical island.
- If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and who would you bring? If I could go anywhere it would be Ireland and I would bring my daughters. It’s such a blessing to be able to travel and see the world, and I would love to have my kids alongside me during that adventure.
- What’s one of your favorite things to do outside of work? One of my favorite things to do outside of work is exploring tide pools. There is an indescribable, mysterious peace that the ocean brings!