Cutting Cattails, Bulrushes, and Reeds

Updated on May 18, 2020
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 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 man and woman 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.

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
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'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.
  • 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 that 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 bandanna works as well, 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 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. 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 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 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 which 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 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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Overgrown wetland grasses and reedsThe remaining reeds are too deep to safely reachRemaining stalks at low water
Overgrown wetland grasses and reeds
Overgrown wetland grasses and reeds | Source
The remaining reeds are too deep to safely reach
The remaining 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 ST - Aquatic Weed Cutter for Lakes, Ponds & Beaches
Jenlis Weed Razer ST - Aquatic Weed 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 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.

Do You Have a Problem with Cattails, Bulrushes, or Reeds?

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Click thumbnail to view full-size
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'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

  • 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?

    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


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    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      4 days ago from Brazil

      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.

    • profile image


      7 days ago

      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.



    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      9 months ago from Brazil

      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.

    • profile image

      Minnesota Mark 

      9 months ago

      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.

    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      11 months ago from Brazil

      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.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      11 months ago from Fresno CA

      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.



    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      20 months ago from Brazil

      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 profile image

      Nell Rose 

      20 months ago from England

      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!

    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years ago from Brazil

      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.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      2 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      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.

    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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 

      2 years ago from Ohio

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

    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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 

      2 years ago from Norfolk, England

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

    • Blond Logic profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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


      2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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


      2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Mary Wickison 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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!


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