Maintaining Deer Grass

Our yard has been planted with California native plants for seven years. Eventually plants require maintenance like pruning or dividing, but advice about maintenance of California native plants is not as readily accessible as descriptions of the plants. To add to the available documentation, we’ll write about our maintenance experience and share photos.

Deer grass, muhlenbergia rigens, is an attractive California-native grass that can serve as a striking foundation plant to anchor surrounding plants. This post discusses deer grass, how we cut it back to clean it up and freshen its appearance, and the results. 

Planted seven years ago, each of the three clumps of deer grass is about 4′ tall and 5′ wide. After seven years, most of the grass is straw-colored instead of green, and leaves and acorns from a nearby oak tree have fallen into the grass.

muhlenbergia rigens
muhlenbergia rigens

Deer grass is a warm-weather bunching grass that is dormant in the winter. Last January we cut two of the three clumps to the ground, in order to clean out old growth and oak debris in the grass. We left the middle clump uncut, in case this pruning was too drastic. The grass is very tough so pruning is difficult. We used lopping shears to cut the grass stalks to the ground, and we swept out leaves and acorns from the stubble.

Two weeks later, yellow blades of grass were growing from the cut-down stalks!

after two weeks, yellow stalks emerge from the stubble
after two weeks, yellow stalks emerge from the stubble

We fed it a weak fertilizer to green it up. Two months later, in late March, new shoots were growing out nicely.

two months after cutting it back
two months after cutting it back

By October, the two pruned clumps have grown out and are cleaner and greener than the unpruned clump in the middle. 🙂

by October, the two pruned clumps on the ends have grown out and are greener
by October, the two pruned clumps on the ends have grown out and are greener

We confirmed the advice to cut back deer grass in January, and we’ll cut down the middle clump this winter. Originally we left some clumps uncut in case the severe pruning didn’t work. We now know that winter pruning of deer grass works, but we’ll continue leaving some clumps uncut so that some grass is visible while the shorn clumps grow back.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

2 thoughts on “Maintaining Deer Grass”

  1. I’ve had deer grass in my front yards for about the same amount of time – 17 years. I have, in the passed, cut back the grass nearly to the ground every other year. However, this year I’m trying another way. I’ve been volunteering at the neighborhood nature center where I learned to raked the old part out of the plant. It’s a lot of work, but want to see if it works. I broke my old rake on the 2 nd deergrass clump.

    Liked by 1 person

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