Monday, July 4, 2016

The Weekly Weeder -- Fox tail and Cheat: Stickery fire hazards

Ripening fox tails

          Cheat and foxtails are drying out and dropping seed, but you can still reduce the number of seeds of these annual grasses infesting your landscape with quick action.  Both of these grasses have seeds that stick into socks and animal fur with barbs that make them hard to pull out the way they went in.  If nothing else, you should cut them and rake up as many seeds as you can, because they are a great fire hazard.

Fox tails dropping seeds into permeable pavement 


        Foxtails are well-known as a hazard to animals with fur, standing up straight up to about 12-15 inches with their tight brush of seeds at the top that fall off the stalk in joined pairs.  They not only stick into fur and socks; they get tracked into the house from the lawn, sticking in carpet. 


Mowed fox tails in Bermuda grass


Mowed foxtails keep growing until they seed out under the mower blades, with at least a dozen seeds per head, about half the size of unmowed foxtail seeds, an unsightly nuisance as they turn blond against the green lawn.  They stick hard into the ground with tough roots even after they dry, but can more easily be pulled out of damp ground, another good reason to water your yard.

Dry "nodding" cheat, a fire hazard next to the sidewalk

Cheat is less obvious, and many people don’t realize the source of the inch-long stickers in their socks or their pet: a tall grass, with a very loose seed head.  There are two varieties of cheat: a tall blond one with the thick stalk that stands a good three feet tall, very straight, that leaves empty shells hanging on the stalk after dropping its seeds, and a shorter, brown “nodding” variety on thin stalks that bend nearly to the ground under the weight of its very sharp seeds, hard to see against the background of other plants, and not leaving any hanging shells when the seeds fall off. 


Mass of tall dry cheat, Westholm Park

The former is the bigger fire hazard; the latter is most likely to grow in forest and to end up in your socks.  Cheat pulls relatively easily once it has begun to bloom, its one saving grace.   When mowed or in very poor soil, it can set as little as a single seed per stalk, keeping its numbers steady.

Green nodding cheat, in dry bitter cress

Foxtails and cheat start growing in fall.  The seeds are large enough to grow through several inches of mulch, but once they sprout, they can be smothered with 2” or more of compost or leaves.  They can also be easily pulled when very young.  Their color is lighter than perennial grasses.  They start blooming in April, showing which kind of grass they are, and should be pulled at that point, before they set seed and dry out.  They pull more easily when blooming than just before it.


A single dry nodding cheat

Weed control is seed control, and our city nuisance code tells up exactly when a weed becomes a nuisance: it forbids allowing weeds to mature or set seed.  Cutting these weeds before they ripen seed can reduce their seed numbers, a lot in the case of cheat; less so with foxtails, but you have to cut them repeatedly until they dry out.  Pulling plants before they drop seed is the better seed control.  It can be done more quickly than you might think. 
But if you have a lot of fox tail or cheat, your best bet may be to cut them; rake up as much as you can, and mulch them over in the fall after they sprout with 2” or more of leaves or compost, pulling any that come up through the mulch later, and plant good perennial grass in the spring, reseeding again in the fall.  It is easy to tell the annual grass from perennial by the light color and wider leaves of the annuals. Be sure to pull them young and later any that show their seed heads.