Cutting Cattails, Bulrushes, and Reeds

Updated on December 25, 2017
Blond Logic profile image

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 | Source

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 plant and I would like to show you how we are removing them. Permanently!

We planted ours about 8 years ago and have been continually, it seems, trying to manage them. It has been a never ending job and I hate to think of the man and woman hours this has cost us.

When my husband casually pondered the thought of removing them completely he only had to say it once. I have been wanting to get rid of 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 a 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. As you can see from our first photo ours are extremely tall. The man cutting them is about 5'6" and was our gardener for a few years. Some of the images where you see a lot of these plants were taken a few years ago. Now I have approximately 100 left to remove, these are currently in water which is too deep for me to cut them.

Why We Planted Cattails

Ok, perhaps I am being a bit too hard on these plants. I've enjoyed watching them blowing in the wind, there is something soothing and calming about them. They have surrounded our lake providing us with a natural privacy screen, a safe haven for water fowl and nesting material for the hummingbirds which nest in our garden.

Where we used to live in England we often walked in nature reserves around fens, or marsh areas where the ditches were lined with tall grasses and reeds. 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. Their reeds are removed by mechanical diggers.

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.

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sharpening a sickle blade
sharpening a sickle blade
sharpening a sickle blade | Source

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 is too slippery, even with textured gloves. My husband keeps the blade sharp. Before anyone mentions it, the sharpening stone is too fine. I know, I bought the wrong one and am reminded every time he uses it.
  • Rubberized gloves. I know if you are a man reading this, you 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. I use ones which are coated in a 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 bandana works as well, I have a stretchy camouflage fabric, which 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 different bottom wear. I normally 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 tried flip flops and they just don't provide the stability. I have also worn running shoes however, they get sucked into the mud.
  • Bee net: We have a few different types of wasps here which 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 5 times on the face in one cutting session. To make it, I simply 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, 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 which 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 which almost form 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 which 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 completely remove the cattails, then 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 common tool in the USA, it slices straight down, like a knife. Once this line has been cut, remove any roots beyond that line. Depending on how wet your soil is, the tubers may be quite deep.

Overgrown wetland grasses and reeds
Overgrown wetland grasses and reeds | Source
The remain reeds are too deep to safely reach
The remain reeds are too deep to safely reach | Source
Remaining stalks at low water
Remaining stalks at low water | Source

How to Cut Cattails

Here is the method I use. If you can see to the bottom of the plant, great, I can't 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 the 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 to be pushed 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 which means you're moving the reeds as little as possible. Otherwise you spend more time shifting cut plants than actually cutting.

Float the cut stalks away
Float the cut stalks away | Source

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.

Jenlis Weed Razer - Aquatic Weed & Grass Cutter for Lakes, Ponds & Beaches
Jenlis Weed Razer - Aquatic Weed & Grass Cutter for Lakes, Ponds & Beaches

You have seen the tool I am using, which is equivalent to a sickle. It is labor intensive and archaic. This Weed Razer, however, caught my attention and after watching the videos of how it is used, I want one.

I will be able to stand on the bank or a floating platform to clear all of our lakes. No more getting tangled in long runs of grass, or dealing with leeches.

For our reeds (cattails), water lilies and unruly grass, this is going to cut down my work immensely!

This works like two razors skimming across the bottom, which will be perfect for our lakes.


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 which 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.

Do you have a problem with cattails, bulrushes, or reeds?

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Drying bulrushes, cattails, or reedsMoving Bulrushes
Drying bulrushes, cattails, or reeds
Drying bulrushes, cattails, or reeds | Source
Moving Bulrushes
Moving Bulrushes | Source

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 grass roots 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 | Source

Uses for Bulrushes and Cattails

Although it is 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.

© 2017 Mary Wickison


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    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 3 weeks ago from Brazil

      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.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 3 weeks ago from Ohio

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

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 2 months ago from Brazil

      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.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 2 months ago from United States

      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.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      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.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 5 months ago from Norfolk, England

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

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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!

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      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 profile image

      Karen Hellier 5 months ago from Georgia

      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?

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      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.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 5 months ago from The Caribbean

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

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      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.

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 5 months ago from UK

      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

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      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 profile image

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      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.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

      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!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

      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!