Burning Ornamental Grass

Question: I’ve heard of burning ornamental grass as a way to rejuvenate it. Is that a good idea and would I burn the grass in the fall?

Answer: The dead foliage of warm-season ornamental grasses can be burned to remove it and make way for new growth. It’s the same reason why you would cut off the dead foliage, just a different means to the end. Wait until late winter or early spring to burn the foliage. Burning it in fall would destroy the winter interest the grass contributes and open the plant up to winter injury.

Do not burn cool-season grasses, such as fescues and heliotrichons, which are semi-evergreen. Remove their dead or damaged foliage by cutting it or gently raking it out.

Careful attention should be paid to fire hazards, personal safety and local laws before any ornamental grasses (or other yard debris) is burned. Do not leave any fire unattended, and have means of extinguishing it close at hand. In many cases it is just as easy, and less risky, to cut the grasses back by hand with pruners or loppers. Electric hedge clippers or a string trimmer can make quicker work of a larger grouping.

See an array of great grasses for various situations and learn how to care for ornamental grasses—download the workshop “Right Grass, Right Place” for just $9.99.

Design your own personal prairie with John Greenlee’s The American Meadow Garden.

Organize your seasonal tasks with The Perennial Care Manual: What to Do and When to Do It—by Nancy Ondra with photos by Rob Cardillo.

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17 thoughts on “Burning Ornamental Grass

  1. I burned my Helictotrichon last spring. I had finger raked the dead leaves out of it for several years, and it just looked bad. So I lit it with a match on a wet spring day. It had a quick burn whick removed all the dead leaves, and left it looking a bit like an unhealthy porqupine. A few weeks later it was growing back nicely, and it hasn’t looked as good as it did this past summer.I probably wouldn’t burn my ornamental grass meadow, but a focal grass in the perennial garden? I’m glad I did.

  2. Burning grasses is a fine idea – for a few. In nearly all metropolitan areas it is outlawed, in Denver since 1958. But, ah the smell of burning leaves and yard waste in the fall – it takes me back to a much simpler time.

    I’m a landscape designer and one really big negative I can see – at least for us gardeners in the west, is the winter design element of ornamental grasse. They are one of the stars of the winter garden – so don’t burn them, enjoy them.

    So in the spring, lift and divide your ornamental grasses and leave the burning to a fond memory of grandpa or you dad standing in the street tending the fire as the neighborhood kids sped about in the piles of leaves not yet burned.

  3. Gardening is regional and of course it would make no sense to burn grasses in areas of high fire danger or if they are located near structures. Hopefully, most people can still use common sense although it really isn’t very common anymore.

  4. Please don’t burn your grass. The best way to rejuvinate it is to have it divided. They choke if the roots get too crowded. That’s why they flop and hollow out; the roots are suffocating. Roots need oxygen!

    I’m a Certified Professional Horticulturist with the State of Maryland (MNLA) and I have a lot of experience in the industry (not as much as I want – but always working on it ;D ). Feel free to look me up with them as a member.

    Those large grasses have a very dense root system, so plan on hiring some good labor to get that done. Best time to divide is in the spring when leaves (blades) are just beginning to pop up.

    No need to burn!! We’re not dealing with forrest rejunivation here!

    • I agree with Elizabeth (the other Elizabeth) on her comment! but I can’t attest to the adding of compost to the center – I’ll look into that for my own edification. Elizabeth, what have you noticed when you do that? I’m at elizabeth@elizgardens.com, Would love to hear.

  5. Holy smokes!!! I never burn my grasses, even though I am tempted. We shear it down in the spring with hedge trimmers and throw it in the fire pit. Away from the house or anything flammable. These grasses burn so hot and so fast, I can see them easily getting out of control. So, folks, leave them for the winter, and trim them down in the spring without lighting a match to it. Let nature rejuvinate the clumps. If the center is bare, rake it out and add a handful of compost to the center. That usually does the trick for me.

  6. Oh my gosh, I am very alarmed that these recommendations include burning ornamental grasses! I live in Southern California where our fire danger is so high, almost year round, that burning anything would be foolish if not downright dangerous! We’ve had major fires that cover hundreds, if not thousands of acres, burned houses, destroyed native habitat, killed people and animals. These fires are often started innocently – a cigarette butt, spark from an electrical wire or a piece of construction equipment. It would be unconscionable to set a fire intentionally here simply to rejuvenate a garden grass.



  7. DO NOT BURN GRASSES if you live in the west or southwest. The danger of setting off a major fire is far too great. This is high risk behavior – and downright dangerous for that part of the country.

  8. If you are a bit of a pyromaniac and choose to burn your grasses, make monumentally certain to control yourself when presented with the opportunity to burn when target material grows adjacent to vinyl sided structures.

  9. Personally I would advise against this form of old growth removal of ornamental grasses and encourage readers to cut the grasses down. SOME ornamental grasses may survive burning with no damage but it is also dependent on time of year and species of grass. In our Midwest area our Miscanthus and other warm season ornamental grasses all are green enough to have exposed growing tips so I wouldn’t advise our area to do this until spring, not fall and by then, the foliage is on the way to decay and easy to cut. Because Saccharum ravennae (Hardy Pampas Grass)can be difficult to cut, I tried burning it one spring and it so damaged the clump that only one small piece survived. Most homeowners also tend to grow their ornamental grasses with other perennial plants – ornamental grasses are rarely planted en masse like prairies – and those perennials could also be damaged by the heat of the fire.
    Ed Lyon, Director, Allen Centennial Gardens, U.W.-Madison, WI.

  10. We do burn some of our grass clumps at home. Some others are too close to things that cannot take the heat. Timing is very important, we need to be out ahead of the snowdrops and alliums in some parts of the beds. In the hayfield we need to be ahead of the Alfalfa. Species is another important consideration Switchgrasses seem to do better than Miscanthus. The reed grasses and Pennisetums need to be burned very early. Planning to burn clump by clump from downwind helps to avoid out of control grass fire situations. In burning the grasses at the trail park, we try to section off smaller parcels so there are fire breaks. We also try to avoid breezes of more than 15 miles an hour.

    • Why are you burning the grasses? Just curious since you didn’t mention why. Also, Panicums (switch grasses) are native; Miscanthus are not. May have something to do with why they do better whre you are. Would love to hear back from you.

  11. Question: In the recent New Jersey snow storm storm a limb fell and sheered off the top of a 5 year old Magnolia Grandiflora. Should I try to rehabilitate the tree (since it has roots) or start over (since I read that events such as this stimulate water sprouts)?

    • Should be no problem, just clean up any ragged breaks with clean cuts, going back to a growth point as you would with any pruning cuts. A few yrs ago, we (in Louisville, KY) had a severe Sept storm followed by a severe ice storm in Jan. Many M.g.s were badly damaged, all grew back beautifully. M.g. is not prone to water sprouts, but should they form, just prune them out.

  12. burning ornamental grasses does clean the crown and make the new growth look fine, but large grass clumps can create very hot very large fires. Please be fire safe. If the clump is failing, fire, or even manual removal of the old growth may not help. Many clump grasses decline because the center of the clump has died. If your clump grass looks like a donut after top-growth removal, you either need to buy a small new plant to put in the dead center, or cut the donut into four, plant one quarter where the original plant was, and plant the other three where you want more grasses.

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