Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Cousin Itt’s Bad Hairdo May 16, 2009

Filed under: grasses,pruning — greenwalks @ 5:00 pm
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(Update: I just realized that I got the name wrong yesterday – it’s Cousin Itt, not Mr. It!)

In addition to New Zealand Flax, Pampas grass is another plant that has been looking terrible all over Seattle after our recent harsh winter. I inherited a clump from the previous owner here, and although I have given it a wide berth in the past few years (those blade edges never fail to leave huge stinging welts on my arms if I get too close!), this year it was just too shaming to leave in its ruined state.

Ugh, Pampas grass hates winter

Doesn’t it look like Cousin Itt from the Addams Family? Maybe after he forgot to use shampoo for a few weeks and get a haircut for a couple odd years?

Lorene of Planted at Home, my new gardening guru, said that in its natural habitat (Southern South America), the died-back plants’ natural rehabilitation is succumbing to fire and then growing again from the ground. Although I briefly considered how fun it would be to torch this sucker, the fact that it’s planted against our 100 yr. old garage in a densely populated urban area made that kind of a no-go. I’d like to just get rid of the plant entirely, but it’s a bit precarious to even get up close to it, situated as it is at the top of a very unstable rockery, so the only other choice was to prune it back and hope it recovers.

Out came the clippers and a big garbage can was full in no time at all. Of course I forgot to wear long sleeves so the stinging welts were a fun side effect.

Pampas grass haircut leavings

Up close, the few semi-healthy green leaves have a nice variegation, and the interior of the clump has this wacky pin-curls thing going on.

Pampas grass interior

There were a few downed flower stalks, feathery plumes which I considered giving to my daughter for her fairy houses but then saw how much they shed and went everywhere, and decided to toss them into the yard waste along with the rest of the debris. Shh, don’t tell her!

Downed Pampas grass plumes

The haircut revealed a large area of totally matted quack grass, my nemesis in many parts of the garden. Maybe I should revisit the burning idea after all, I’m not sure what else is going to take care of this area. I would never have planted this plant on my own, and now I’m worried that I’m stuck with it. It’s an invasive disaster in California, where it is choking out native plants and becoming a real problem. Click here if you want to read about how easily it spreads there and how difficult it is to eradicate. If you thought blowing a dandelion was bad, imagine one that grows to be 8 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide from every seed!?!

Before and After photos are pretty much my favorite thing about reading garden blogs and books. There is something just so satisfying about seeing a successful renovation of a problem space, plant, or entire garden. Sadly, this will not qualify. In fact, it might belong in a pruning Hall of Shame! I’m embarrassed to show this, it looks something like the horror haircut I gave my daughter in the fall just in time for school picture day (she had to wear a hat). I am only showing it so you can have a good laugh at my expense.

Pampas grass "After," or maybe just "During"

I’m consoling myself with the fact that I had to stop before I felt done, and that I will try to go back and make it look better. Any suggestions? A little more off the top and sides? Give up and just put up a screen to hide my terrible job? Maybe I need to face facts and start leaving my pruning jobs to professionals…

Do you have any plants that you feel like you’re stuck with but don’t know what to do about?


12 Responses to “Cousin Itt’s Bad Hairdo”

  1. Jane Says:

    I’m sorry to learn that I have yet another “invasive plant” love: I just put in a pampas last year. Of course it was laid low by our nasty winter, but I’m taking inspiration from the renewal I see in your pampas. Mine looks more like a Dr. Seuss plant, with funny bunches of new leaves jutting out at strange angles from that same pin-curl center.

    Plants I’m stuck with: two camellias in front of our living room windows. They should never have been planted where they are: they’re too high for the window and block the bottom sill if you’re outside. But Mr. MulchMaid is much more conscious of privacy than am I, and will not consent to taking them out. Life is compromise, so I live with them across our window.

  2. Oh my yes–I don’t know what to do with the hollies shrubs in front. They don’t fit in with the “theme” of the yard, they are sticker-y, and boring. But they are also very, very hard to dig up, so I’ve put it off for years now. Really need to get on with it, I suppose.

    You pampas grass does look a bit better with the new haircut. 🙂

  3. Jen Says:

    We have some of this in our school courtyard. We cut it back almost to the ground in the fall. It looks terrible until spring, but usually redeems itself by mid-summer. We just dug it up and moved it to a new location. I wonder if it will live.

    My problem plant is the peonies. I love them, but they’ve gotten too tall and hide my hydrangea. I want to move them but it took so long to get them established. Maybe I’ll try moving one this year and see how it works out.

  4. Kim Says:

    Karen, thanks for the comment on my blog. I’ll try pre-sprouting the bean and squash seeds if the ones I plant tomorrow don’t make it.

    As for the Pampas – I’ve never had any, but I cut my Zebra grass (Miscanthus) to a 4 inch stubble every March, and it comes back beautifully. I don’t know if Pampas will do that, though. Good luck!

  5. Racquel Says:

    I removed one of those beasts from my garden last fall. After years of it torturing me I said bye-bye. I used the hedge trimmer to cut it down to the ground & then had a fun time digging up the massive root ball. Good riddance! It opened up a shady area for me to grow more of my favorite perennials & a Hydrangea. 🙂

  6. Michelle Says:

    I’ve got a Myoporum mess. This shrub grew too fast, then was heavily damaged in a freeze a couple of years ago which left dead branches sticking up all over it. Then heavy rains last year caused it to lean waaay over on its side. I did my own version of Cousin Itt triming on the dang thing hoping that it would grow in its usual weedlike manner and cover up the mess. Sheesh, it’s just a mess, mess, mess. I should just take it out.

    I think Racquel’s hedge trimmer treatment for the pampas grass would be appropriate. Take it down to a few inches – if it grows back great, if it doesn’t even better!

  7. Cami Peloza Says:

    This is just a general comment. I LOVE your blog and thank you for listing other gardening blogs. I’ve bookmarked several of them. I just started a blog myself: and would love to hear tips from any of you as to how to publicize it.

    I am also going to post a list of other gardening blogs and will be sure to list this one.

  8. Megan Says:

    I can’t tell if it’s grown on you a little and you sort of want to keep it, or if you want to get rid of it entirely. If you were trying to get rid of it, I wonder if you cut it all the way back and used a little torch on the base to kill it, and then let it rot before you did it out. Of course, with grasses, they might just think that was one great prairie fire and come back reinvigorated.
    The haircut really doesn’t look that bad. I’ve definitely seen worse.

  9. Chloe M. Says:

    I really enjoy your blog as well!

    As for Cousin Itt, I’d take a bit more off the top and sides – he’ll spout fresh new growth in no time. (But then, I’m a regular Edward Scissorhands in the garden.)

    Chloe M.

  10. Tatyana Says:

    Hi Karen! I gave a haircut to my dwarf pampas grass earlier this year. Well, it looks bold in comparison with yours! Maybe I need to post a picture of it. Now, I start to see new green growth. I put cut pieces in the vegetable garden to supress the weeds.

  11. Lorene Says:

    Hi Karen,
    Go for it and cut the entire plant back to it’s almost woody crown! I think the hedge trimmer is a good idea if it doesn’t tangle in the blades. When you cut the grass down in the spring, fresh new growth will quickly spring back to cover the bad hair day effect. It looks better already!

  12. Michele Says:

    It was like you photographed my own pampas grass. I have the same feelings about ours. My husband whacked it back with the hedge trimmer and it has been slow to come back. I too have the curly que fronds that are interesting to photograph. I am wondering about whether it was worth planting. It has turned into a monster!

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