Sunday, June 26, 2016

Weekly Weeder: Stop Crab Grass in your lawn

Baby crab grass in bare dirt

          Summer is here, and crab grass is sprouting in lawns, very thick in some.  It’s past time to mulch your lawn, but not too late to smother a lot of it.
Last year, I started mulching crab grass in Dad’s lawn when it started sprouting, which was a bit late for the amount of mulch I was using, an inch of compost.  Sprouting crab grass is very small, and can be hard to see before it gets big enough to grow out of the mulch.  Not that the effort was wasted; the compost still stopped a lot of crab grass, and the lawn is looking much healthier and greener than last spring, without moss under the tree.

Young crab grass, spreading from its crown

Lawn grasses can readily grow through an inch or more of compost and will be much happier for it.  If your grass is perennial rye, a clumping grass, it’s a good time to seed more rye into the compost where it is patchy.  Mulching leaves into the lawn over the fall and winter with the lawn mower will help smother small-seeded grasses like crab grass and Bermuda.
            Crab grass is a clumping relative of Bermuda grass that also roots along its stems, but it’s tender, and dies with the first frost.  It is a tender perennial, as it does not die from making seed, but only spreads and makes more seed until it freezes.  It roots deeply where it is well watered, and hardly roots at all where it is not watered well, living on dust and dew collected on its hairy leaves. 

This young, mature crab grass appears to be growing in well-mowed Bermuda.

Bermuda grows rhizomes that can travel under sidewalks and go 18” deep and goes dormant about 6 months of the year in Oregon, making it a lawn weed in this area, not good grass.   Bermuda and crab grass show their family relationship in the shape of their seed stalks, and the size of their seed, which is, thankfully, small and easily smothered with mulch.  So the same mulching that stops crab grass can also prevent Bermuda from germinating.
Ironically, in Arizona, where they use Bermuda as lawn grass, they mulch their lawns with steer manure every spring, which keeps them thick and green in the summer heat, and crab grass is rare.  Here in southern Oregon, I don’t recall seeing anyone else using steer manure or other compost on their lawns, and crab grass has spread all over town and down our country roads in the last 20 years.  Chemical fertilizers don’t smother weed seeds, and crab grass has no problem with dryness or low fertility.

Green crab grass with dry foxtails and cheat

Even if you mulch, it is unlikely that you will stop all the crab grass in your lawn, since the seed is everywhere.  Unlike annual grasses, the roots of crab grass are tough and wiry, and where they go deep, it is nearly impossible to pull after it flowers.  But it can be cut off its roots with garden scissors or a knife, and it won’t grow back, as it has no food in those wiry roots.
It doesn't pay to spray crab grass with Roundup (glyphosate salts), even in gravel and bare dirt.  It kills the plant, but fertilizes the seed in the soil; it comes back greener every time.

Revised June 2016, online at with photos. Follow Rycke or subscribe.
Gardening is easy if you do it naturally.  Like Garden Grants Pass on Facebook.
Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener        541-955-9040

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Goat heads: Trouble on the Ground

Flowering goat head, courtesy of Forrest and Kim Starr

          Goat heads have started sprouting, flowering, and setting seed over the last few weeks in the hotter places in Grants Pass where it has been allowed to grow.  Locally known as puncture vine, it is also called bull head, bull thorn, tack vine, caltrops and other names too numerous to mention.  Its Latin name is Tribulus terrestris, Trouble of the Ground. 

Ripening goat head seeds, Forrest and Kim Starr

Caltrops were weapons of war made to lame horses, from which we get the old game of jacks, and the seeds of this plant will quickly lame your horse, dog or anyone going barefoot, as well as puncturing bike and wheelbarrow tires.  Mowers spread it around on their tires as they are taken from one neglected lot to the next if the mower doesn’t get cleaned off between lots.

Goat head seeds

          It is such a trouble that it is generally not allowed to grow for long on occupied residential property, but is common around here on neglected lots, gravel parking lots, and all over our downtown core in parking medians and along sidewalks, spreading out very flat except where it piles on top of itself.  It will soon be spilling over curbs, scattering its seeds under feet and tires.  It comes up a bit later in cooler lawns and lightly shaded woodland, and grows well in thick healthy grass.

Goat heads growing in brick sidewalk.
          It grows very fast in the hottest, driest places, setting seed as soon as it starts to flatten out and spread.  Those seeds come in clumps of 5, which quickly break apart into very hard, ¼-3/8 inch three-pointed seeds that remind people of horned heads of goats or cattle.  They come from flowers that are bright yellow, ¼ inch wide, with five rounded petals.  The leaves are small and pea-like, about an inch long, divided bilaterally into about 9 leaflets.  It can start making seed at only an inch wide, but can spread out to 3 feet in every direction, with hundreds of seeds on its underside, waiting to be stepped on and carried away.  Its seeds are also spread by runoff.
It puts down a thick taproot that is hard to pull from dry ground, but you don’t have to pull the root; cutting it under its thick crown, from which its branches spread, will kill it.  Like most annual weeds, it stores no food in its root. 
Gardening scissors are best for this job, but a knife will do.  BiMart has long-bladed titanium gardening snips that don’t chip or dent when cutting weeds in gravel.
I throw these weeds in the trash, not my truck, lest I spread its loose seeds around in my travels from one customer to the next.  This is the only weed that I do not take to the composter, though it would be killed by hot composting like any other weed seed.