Skip to main content

Cutting Cattails, Bulrushes, and Reeds

Living on a farm in Brazil, I've gained local in-depth knowledge of food, plants, and traditions, which I share through my articles.

Cutting cattails, bulrushes and reeds

Cutting cattails, bulrushes and reeds

Permanently Removing Cattails, Bulrushes and Reeds

I don't remember the exact date we lost our minds but it must have coincided with the day we decide to plant reeds. Whether you call them reeds, cattails, or bulrushes they are a similar type of plant and I would like to show you how we are removing them. Permanently!
We planted ours eleven years ago and have been fighting a losing battle trying to manage them. It has been a never-ending job and I hate to think of the hours this has cost us- time that could have been spent on something more important.
When my husband mentioned removing them, he only had to say it only once; I have been wanting to remove them for years! Removing them is now down to me, and as God as my witness, I am going to make sure I remove every last stalk, tuber, and sniff of the root of these wretched plants.
In this article, I will use the words cattails, bulrushes, and reeds interchangeably, but be aware there are differences in the plants. Our plants are tall, as you can see in the photo. The man cutting them is about 5'6" and was our gardener a few years ago. Now, I have approximately 150 left to remove, which are currently in water that is too deep for me to safely cut.

Why We Planted Cattails

Ok, perhaps I am a bit too hard on these plants. I've enjoyed watching them blowing in the wind; there is something soothing and calming about them as they sway from side to side. They have surrounded our lake, providing us with a natural privacy screen, a haven for waterfowl, and nesting material for the hummingbirds which nest in our garden.
We often walked in nature reserves around fens or marsh areas where the ditches were lined with tall grasses and reeds where we used to live in England. These areas were rich in wildlife, and this was what was going through our minds when we planted these tall cattails here on our farm.
In that Brussel sprout eating, tweed-wearing country, full of micro-managers, the 'wild nature reserves' are hyper-managed by men in green Wellington boots holding clipboards. The reserves are made to look wild when in fact, they are not. Mechanical diggers remove their reeds.
With hindsight, we should have listened to the locals who told us we shouldn't plant them. In a tropical climate, plants grow and spread rapidly. We also realized they were a perfect hiding place for thieves who stole our fish when we were farming tilapia.

Tools Needed to Cut Bulrushes

To do any job well, you need to have the right equipment. Here's what I use.

  • Sickle: The hardwood handle makes it heavy to use, but the muscles soon adapt. Don't use plastic pipe (I have tried it); it's too slippery, even with textured gloves. My husband keeps the blade sharp. Before anyone remarks on it, the sharpening stone is too fine. I know, I bought the wrong one, and he reminds me every time he uses it. Since first writing this article, we have replaced the sharpening stone with an angle grinder.
  • Rubberized gloves. If you are a man reading this, you may think you don't need gloves. Trust me, after an hour's work, your hands will be blistered. The water makes the skin soft, and without the protection of gloves, if they aren't blistered, they'll be raw—any gloves which offer grip when wet are better than none at all. I use ones coated in rubberized latex.
  • Long sleeve camo jacket: Depending on where you live, you may not need to wear this. Our UV index is in the extreme category, so I cover up. We also have found that wasps and bees don't seem to see the camouflage clothing.
  • Neck protection: As above, for sun protection, workers here, and I am one of them, wear a face covering. Although a bandanna works, I have a stretchy camouflage fabric that just slips over my head.
  • Aerobics shorts: Our water is warm, so I don't have to wear waders. If your water is cold, opt for other bottom wear. I usually wear skin-tight bottoms. Our lakes have leeches, and I will pull them off my lower legs, but I don't want them climbing any higher.
  • Swim shoes: If the area you are clearing has any sharp objects, including sticks, glass, cans, or shells, you need a pair of swim shoes. I have used flip flops, and they don't provide stability. I have also worn running shoes; however, they get sucked into the mud. Trying to release the suction is both tiring and unnecessary.
  • Bee net: We have a few different types of wasps here that attach their nest to the reeds. These can be difficult to see when cutting until I am right on top of them, and they are alert, protecting their nest. If my lower body is in water, it is protected. Around my hat, I have pinned a makeshift net to keep from getting stung on my face. I created this net after being stung five times on my face in one cutting session. To make it, I used netting we already had here on our farm and put a drawstring through it. Then using safety pins, I attach it to the hat.

Preparing the Area Before Cutting

In order to cut the cattails, it may be necessary to clear weeds first. As you can see from the picture below, I had to clear a lot of grass in order to start cutting the reeds. One of our problematic types of grass sends out runners that may go 10 feet. There is not an easy way except to keep yanking and rolling it out. Our type produces a mass of roots that almost forms a blanket. This floating web of roots can be hooked with the sickle and pulled closer to the bank for extraction.

Cutting the Cattails

If you cut the cattails below the waterline, they will die. However, there may already be a new shoot starting that you don't see. This is why you may need to go through and cut some remaining ones in a few weeks. If you cut and the stalk is above water, you're wasting your time. These need to be dug out, removing the thick tuber.

If you wish to control and not altogether remove the cattails, you'll need to cut a line between the bulrushes and the water. We found using a spade was the best tool for this. Although not a standard tool in the USA, it slices straight down like a knife. Decide on your line, then remove any roots of those plants. Depending on how wet your soil is, the tubers may be quite deep.

How to Cut Cattails

Here is the method I use. If you can see to the bottom of the plant, great. I can't because our water is very dark. I slide the sickle down to the base of the stalk and then give it a fast tug. It may not cut on the first pull. Try and repeat in the same place. It's better to cut from the side of the plant. Some of them will be wide at the base, perhaps 12" or 30 cm across. You'll find it difficult to cut with the flat part of the plant facing you; step to the side, so the width you are cutting is about 2".
If the water is deep, cut as low as you can. I make a policy that I won't go any deeper than chest-deep. You don't have the power when you go any deeper because your arms are fighting against the water.

Keeping Your Area Clear

Depending on the plants you're cutting, you will have long stalks floating on the water, and these need pushing out of the way. As you can see from the first image on this page, our reeds are tall. If you have a strong wind, let it help you move the cut stalks to the edge of the lake or downstream. Work in a way that means you're moving the reeds as little as possible. Otherwise, you spend more time shifting cut plants than cutting.

Float the cut stalks away.

Float the cut stalks away.

Safety Tips and Precautions

If you're working on a steep bank, your swim shoes will come into their own. I've worked in mud, sand, and weeds and I feel sure-footed when I wear mine.
Also as you cut into the reeds, you can use the stumps you've left behind to wedge your foot in between. Part of the reason for clearing the grass is also a safety measure. Long runners of grass can trip you and work like a rope entangling you in the water. This is why I have found the easy way is to pull out as much grass as possible.

Drying Cattails and Moving

Once you've cut the bulrushes and pulled them out of the water, leave them to dry if possible. They will be much lighter to move. We have used everything from our VW Kombi, our tractor and trailer, a wheel barrow and even our arms to move them. Use whatever is suitable that can take a large volume. Once they are dry they are extremely light. I have been known to pile up the trailer, and then used myself as a weight to hold them down for transporting. We get strong winds and need to keep them secure so they don't blow out. I hate doing a job twice.

Composting or Burning

We compost our reeds where possible but if it is a mixture of reeds and grass, we will often burn. We don't want the grass to take hold again. I have patches of grassroots that grow about 2' thick in places. It is a pain so I have no problem burning it. We do this on an island so there is no chance of it spreading.

Burning grass.

Burning grass.

Uses for Bulrushes and Cattails

Although it's easy to look at this problematic and often invasive plant and think there is nothing positive about it, there is.

  • The stalks have long been used to make seats and backs for chairs, table mats, hats, bags, and baskets.
  • The seed heads are used for decorations, food, and as a fire starter.
  • Those who forage for food and survivalists praise its uses and year-round availability.
  • Left to decompose, they enrich the soil. Many of our earlier coconut trees were planted with composted reed stalks.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: I just pulled all my reeds down with an excavator and the little stubs are still sticking up out of the marsh. Will they grow back?

Answer: I'm sorry to have to say, yes they probably will. However, some may rot out and die. If they are removed when water can get inside the plant, you stand a better chance of this rot happening. That said, it is the tuber that needs to rot in order to say that the plant will indeed die.

The more tubers you can get out the better. Even if you can't remove all of them this season, continued vigilance will greatly reduce the number and make them more manageable.

We found that using a spade and cutting down through the tuber made it easier to remove. It can be long, tedious, and back-breaking work but the excavator probably turned over the soil which will help.

© 2017 Mary Wickison


Mary Wickison (author) from USA on July 11, 2020:

Hi Dion,

That sounds like a good idea.

They are resistant plants and you may get some regrowth. I have even cut some dead ones and found the core alive.

The more you do now, the fewer there are to reproduce. Although cutting and flooding is good, removing the tuber is even better. When we had a time of low water, we cut a line with a spade removing all the tubers nearest the water. That way, when the water rose, the majority of the growth would be in shallower water and we could still reach it.

Another thing to mention, I have been known to leave some cut reeds floating intending to remove them the following day. Learn from my mistake, get them out and to an area to dry. They will begin sprouting even though they are floating.

They do compost down well (albeit slowly). Some of our coconut trees were planted using this as an organic planting medium.

You don't say what type of brush cutter you have or if you'll be using the metal blade or the nylon cord. The reeds are very fibrous and may wrap around the cutting head. I have only used our brush cutter on smaller ones but never tried the thick ones.

I wish you luck, and I hope you report back with good news.

Dionnz on July 09, 2020:

Hey Mary,

Hoping this Q&A is still active.

I'm in Victoria, Australia and recently acquired property with a dam with reeds, like yours on it. Its the neighbours property and I've watched the reeds grow over the past decade.

I have this theory that i'm working through at the moment.

Lower the dam level with syphoning, into a creek. Cut the reeds down with a brush cutter,(mostly above water line, then fill the dam up again, all hopefully before spring. I have another dam with no reeds in it, that is located above the weed filled dam, and hope to bring the level back up, flooding whats left of the reed stems. and hopefully killing off the reeds, like you have done by cutting below the water.

What do you think? do I have a shot.... Fingers crossed but either way its the start of a big mission.

Its a theory and if I do it quick enough, although it will take a couple months, i'm hoping it will work.

Love what you have done with yours and yes it's blood, sweat and tears to work with, even with a brush cutter.



Mary Wickison (author) from USA on September 23, 2019:

Hi Mark,

I feel your pain. LOL

I have no problem wading in the lake, where I live in Brazil, we have been a source of entertainment for our neighbors.

We just get on with it.

You be careful with that 'widow maker'. It has to be better than my sickle.

Just today, I commented to my husband that we have another patch that HAS to be removed. We have had a long wet season, and the cattails have multiplied when I had my back turned.

Thank goodness it is always warm here.

Thank you for sharing your tips, they will be helpful to many.

Minnesota Mark on September 23, 2019:

Troubled times in the Land of 10,000 lakes. I have experienced every issue in the article.. Three great takeaways I can confirm.

1. Submerge the cattails below the waterline. It does work.

2. Let the wind do the work when raking up the debris. Pick up the debris, otherwise you get more muck buildup.

3. Let the weeds dry. Easier to handle.

I would consider this an instant classic article on removing cattails.

We use large garden sheers, a machete and a Y shaped weed razor. The weed razer (a/k/a the Widow-Maker) is extremely helpful. Just be careful, there is a reason I call it the Widow-Maker. It can be a challenge to assemble. I use the Widow Maker with a long rope to remove my bulrushes. I heave it out from our dock. It creates a nice semi-circle on the bulrushes. For areas outside the semi-circle I pull the Widow-Maker with a boat at very slow sped and tug/jerk the line as I am going. This usually removes the plants from the roots. I also go in the kayak and pull the Bulrushes to remove the roots. However, it is very difficult to cut establish cattails with the Widow-Maker because the stalks grow too thick. It is embarrassing to have to wade into the lake to dislodge the Widow-Maker from cattails. I recommend gradually expanding the area over a couple of years. We noticed immediate improvements the following year. The previous year stalks still exist but disappear. I thought I was going crazy but this article confirm everything.

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on July 30, 2019:

Hi Denise,

I am from Fresno so know it well. Although I am sure there are lots of changes since I left many years ago.

Where farms are managed well, I can see how they wouldn't let them get out of control. In the tropics there is a lot of burning to help clear the ground.

As I cut them and also palm leaves, I think that I am wasting a valuable resource. Even when I cut the bamboo (don't get me started on that as an invasive plant), I think how I used to use bamboo reeds when I played the clarinet.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 30, 2019:

Wow, Mary, what a problem. I always knew they were invasive but still I admired them as crafting material and charming background. Now I know never to plant them if ever I had the notion. Here in Central California, there aren't too many natural lake/pond places where that could happen. It's dry here. I've seen a few reeds around canal banks but those are maintained by farmers with tractors. Thanks for the insight.



Mary Wickison (author) from USA on November 01, 2018:

It was hard work but at least in that lake they are gone. I have a few more scattered about but they are no match for this woman armed with a spade and a sickle.

Nell Rose from England on November 01, 2018:

Well done for starters! lol! I would have no idea how to do that, and it does look like hard work. I learned something new!

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on March 18, 2018:

Hi Audrey,

To be honest, I didn't know how much work was involved. I now have a better appreciation of what an invasive plant can do and the importance of keeping it in check.

So many places have invasive plants which cost cities and counties a lot of money when it needs to be removed.

I'm glad the photos were helpful.

Hope you're having a great weekend.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on March 17, 2018:

I had no idea that Cattails involved so much work when removing them. The photos help me to understand the process. Thanks, Mary, for educating me.

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on December 26, 2017:

Hi Kari,

Merry Christmas to you.

It is hard work and it seems never-ending. We spend more time removing what we don't want than growing what we do want!

I have added some pictures of what it looks like at low water after my cutting. I now need to get in and remove the dead stumps. As I said, it's never-ending.

Thanks for reading and your support.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 25, 2017:

This sounds like so much work. You have done wonders! I am amazed by the pictures. Merry Christmas!

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on November 19, 2017:

Your flu was a blessing in disguise! The older I get the less I like manual labor, but the cold wind whipping around, no thank you.

Let's hope those reeds got cleared without you.

Jill Spencer from United States on November 19, 2017:

I was invited to help clear invasive reeds from the Chesapeake Bay yesterday and declined because I've been struggling for weeks to overcome the 'flu. After reading your article, I'm glad I did. What a lot of work! While you have wasps and burning sun, here we deal with choppy water and cold winds.

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on August 07, 2017:

Hi Louise,

Although I use the word cattails, because it is a popular term in the US, in the UK they are probably called a bulrush.

They are pretty to look at but the work involved is too much for us.

My husband also has planted bamboo, don't even get me started on that subject! Trying to eradicate that is nigh on impossible! We made some gardening mistakes.

We used to walk not too far from you in a place called Woodwalton fen in Cambridgeshire.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on August 07, 2017:

I think cattails are lovely plants, although I would imagine it's hard work cutting them.

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on August 06, 2017:

Hi Linda,

Sometimes I ask myself if I I can do it. The answer is, if not me, who. Finding the motivation to start a big job isn't easy but with plants, if you wait, the job will only get more difficult.

I posted that image of myself on Facebook, to let friends and family see, life in the tropics isn't all bikinis and flip flops.

Glad you enjoyed it, thanks for reading.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 05, 2017:

I hope I never have to do the hard job that you did. It was very interesting to read about it, though. The photos are great—especially the one of you!

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on August 04, 2017:

Hi Karen,

We have a constant year round temperature of about 87°. The only difference is it is windy from August to December and then it rains and the humidity goes up but the temperature remains the same.

With a year round warm climate, there is never a down time for gardening. I joke that I am a temperate gardener in a tropical climate. It pretty much means by October, I have had enough of watering and weeding.

Leaves fall year round so it is constant raking.

I love it here and if we didn't have to work so hard, we might have time to enjoy it.

At least it keeps us fit.

Glad you enjoyed the photos, thanks for your comment.

Karen Hellier from Georgia on August 04, 2017:

Wow, those are great pictures that illustrate your words so well. Your profile says you live on a farm in Brazil...sounds pretty cool to me. Or maybe it's hot?

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on July 31, 2017:

Hi Dora,

I am pleased you found it interesting. With hindsight, we should have listened to what our neighbors said and not planted them.

Farm life does through up challenges but I feel we have become stronger having to deal with them.

It has definitely made us re-evaluate what is important in life.

Thanks for reading.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 30, 2017:

Thanks for teaching us so much about farm life even through the challenges and solutions the farm presents. You show us around really well.

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on July 29, 2017:

Oh Glenis, I wish I had time for a sideline!

I lived in the UK for 20 years and I was never a fan of Brussel sprouts either. I will say, while I was living there, I never poked fun at the British. There was an occasional eye roll, however.

The reeds here are just one of the many jobs which seem to take a huge chunk of time, so I will be glad when they are gone, completely.

Thanks for reading.

Glen Rix from UK on July 29, 2017:

Well done! It was bad enough digging out my invasive raspberry canes so your task must have been exhausting. You can perhaps start a sideline making imaginative items with your crop. P.S. I don't eat Brussels sprouts but Vivienne Westwood did some imaginative things with tweed and I wouldn't object to wearing one of her jackets

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on July 29, 2017:

Hi FlourishAnyway,

My husband said he is going to post that picture on Facebook!

Because my husband is an amputee, all the work in the lakes is my job.

If the reeds weren't enough, he planted bamboo, which also is a nightmare! Invasive plants are extremely difficult to remove when they get a foothold. It requires constant vigilance to remove new growth and dig up any remaining roots, rhizones or tubers.

Thanks for your comment.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 28, 2017:

Good heavens this was amusing but only because I don't struggle with them. Invasive plants can take over and be a mess. I have struggled with other things I've planted and regretted because they took over like wildfire. Had it not been for your photos, I'm not sure the pure hell of what you have experienced would come across as well. The photo of you in that get up is truly something to behold. Remarkable. I will never look at cattails quite the same.

Mary Wickison (author) from USA on July 28, 2017:

Isn't it funny, I would love to have fresh blackberries. We use to pick these in the hedgerows in England. Anything above dog height was okay for picking.

For our problem, I have nearly eradicated these pesky plants.

I have just read that blackberry plants can live to 25 years old. Yikes!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 28, 2017:

I was laughing while I read this. Obviously, here in Washington, this isn't something we are too concerned with, but we do have a similar problem with blackberry bushes, which are incredibly hard to kill and which thrive in our climate. One year we decided to plant some....the idea of fresh berries was the reason. We have now been trying to get rid of those bushes for three years. They take over everything...they are determined not to die...and the war continues!