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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.

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Read More From Dengarden

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 Brazil 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.