Weeds are something that every gardener will struggle with at some point. Whether lawns or garden beds, weeds can grow anywhere, develop seed heads, and spread seeds anywhere. A battle with weeds can demoralize the efforts of even the most optimistic breeders. And a weed that is the bane of gardening is the foxtail.
Similar to crab grass, foxtail seeds and foxtail weeds can make a healthy lawn or pasture their domain within a few seasons. The growing conditions of these perishable weeds are diverse, which requires persistent and aggressive control in many areas. However, some control methods are better than others. Which method you use will likely depend on the size and width of your property.
Whether you prefer organic, mechanical or chemical controls, you can rest assured that you can remove foxtails from lawns, pastures and gardens at the right time. With the right settings and the right herbicide (organic or chemical in some cases) you will prevent foxtail weeds from sprouting again and again and save yourself major headaches in the process.
What is foxtail grass?
There are many different species of foxtail weed. Source: Shannon Tompkins
Foxtail is a slang term for members of several grass, barley, millet, and blackberry families. The most notorious foxtail plants come from the Setaria genus. Foxtail weeds are well known for their seed heads, which contain fine hairs and barbs that lodge in the feet and mouths of animals that may be exposed to them. They look like a foxtail, hence the name. The leaf of the foxtail is very similar to other grasses: narrow, pointed and attached to the stem at the knot.
The whole point of the barbed seed head is the seed spread and reproduction of the foxtail plant. The seed head enables Foxtail to sow grass itself in dry or moist soil, lawns, pastures and gardens, among other things.
Some species of foxtail weeds are annual and some are perennial. Giant foxtail is an annual summer year that appears in the spring and develops seed heads in the summer. Other foxtail grasses are perennial and live several seasons before completing their life cycle. They all have pronounced seed heads that accompany fine hairs. The foxtail seed is said to penetrate fur and socks, and its barb digs into the skin and can be a major nuisance to anyone who comes in contact with it.
Identify foxtail weeds
Foxtails develop long stalks on which the foxtail seed pod forms. Source: NYSIPM
Now that we know about the foxtail's leaves, hairs, and awns, let's talk about its life cycle. Each foxtail plant goes through different growth phases and has different characteristics. Let's cover these now so you have a good idea of what to look for and when to look.
Since foxtail seedlings did not develop a seed head, they are difficult to identify. Especially when they are embedded between grass and other weeds, foxtails are not easy to distinguish at this stage. Another complication is that each species has variable seedlings. One thing to look out for, however, is a parallel plant that has an elongated true leaf 1 inch long and ⅛ inch wide.
After about 40 days, foxtail seedlings turn into foxtail grass. Most species clump together, but some grow individually on an erect stem. The leaves of mature foxtail weeds grow from the base of the stem and curl around it. Fully ripe foxtail grass can grow up to four feet before seed heads have formed. They tend to appear in disturbed soil on pastures, lawns, and between different types of grass. Wherever the soil is disturbed, it is ideal for yellow, green and giant foxtail.
This is where the foxtail seed head comes into play. Green foxtail has pronounced green seed heads that bloom between late spring and late fall. Yellow foxtail has 2 to 5 inch yellow seed heads that bloom from summer through winter. Giant foxtail herbs have 3 to 7 inch seed heads that bloom from summer through late fall and turn yellow in the latter part of their fruiting phase.
The seeds will detach from the foxtail seed head when they are ready to germinate. They are carried away by the wind and either end up in the ground or nestle in the fur and skin of farm animals, pets and humans. They also cling to clothing. The seeds can rest for years before fully germinating. If the conditions are right for the seeds, they will sprout instantly. Ideal temperatures for these seeds are between 68 and 95 degrees. If you are gardening in the spring, watch out for foxtail leaves and seeds and control them aggressively.
Hazards to pets and farm animals
These dry yellow foxtails are a common sight across California in late summer. Source: FotoGrazio
Since cattle see these plants as fodder, they eat them, which causes many problems for ranchers everywhere. If you want to create a pet-safe garden, giant foxtail, yellow foxtail, and green foxtail control are a must. Both livestock and pets can experience infection from the foxtail barb, which burrows in one direction, making it difficult to pull out without causing epidermal damage. Foxtail plants are especially common if you live near pasture or prairie where the grass is not cut frequently. Sometimes they show up in lawns and gardens.
The foxtail seed barbs carry bacteria, dirt, and debris with them as they dig. This is another reason they have been linked to infection. Dogs are especially at risk of having problems with foxtail seeds as they use their snouts to sense what is in front of them. The barb of the seed heads can get into sensitive areas such as the eyes, nose, between the toes and mouth. This is where it is particularly difficult to remove giant foxtail or yellow foxtail seeds, and also where infections have better conditions to fester.
Foxtails can also nestle in the collar area. The collar region is particularly important for dogs with longer hair. Veterinary sources recommend checking for foxtails frequently in working dogs and those who live near areas where foxtails grow: on your lawn, in pasture, or near the wilderness where forage grass grows. The same goes for cats that go outdoors. Barn cats are particularly vulnerable. You don't want to risk an expensive vet bill for your pet.
Although it sounds extreme, foxtail can be fatal in farm animals or pets if not identified quickly enough. Since the seeds get stuck in sensitive areas out of sight of farmers and animal owners, it is very important to look for the awns for whether foxtail is on or near your property. An infection left for too long could progress outside of the treatable area.
How to Get Rid of Foxtail Weed
When drying, the green foxtail releases spike seeds. Source: NYSIPM
If foxtail grass is predominant in your property, pasture, or lawn, options are yours. You can use cultural control methods or remove them mechanically. You can also kill them with organic or chemical herbicides. Uproot the giant foxtail, yellow foxtail, and green foxtail near you and you are well on your way to gardening without the risk of stinging (or gardening with weeds)! Or you can get one step closer to a healthy lawn without a yellow foxtail.
Mowing is one way to look after foxtails, especially with the right timing. The key to mowing these grasses is to do it before the seed head has time to form. Since the three types of this forage grass we discussed tend to bloom from spring through fall, watch out for the first signs of bloom in spring and take the lawnmower there. Finding the right time and not having to cover a lot of grass in a large area can easily prevent foxtail seeds from germinating further. Otherwise, this method costs a lot of energy and maintenance. Constant vigilance is necessary.
If foxtails are only a problem in a small area, dig them up, root them, leaf them, and all. By removing the whole plant, you prevent seed and root reproduction. If you can identify a seedling before the real leaf forms, you can simply pull it out by the root by hand. For fully grown plants, you will likely need a trowel and some muscle. Although the roots of these grasses are shallow, they are sturdy. Kill them this way or use organic control methods to rid your property of these forage grasses.
Organic foxtail herbicide
Horticultural vinegar, individually applied to the leaf and awns of green, yellow, and giant foxtails, is one way to quickly get rid of the plant. If you choose to go this route, make sure you have a mechanism to spray the vinegar and that you are wearing a mask and gloves. This vinegar is not the type you use in your kitchen and can cause breathing difficulties if the fumes are inhaled. Don't spray on a windy day as the steam can affect the green leaf of a plant that lives next to the foxtails you want to get rid of. It can also easily irritate or burn your skin. Use this method with caution. Note that you may need to reapply the vinegar in a week or two for it to be fully effective.
There are also corn gluten and organic weed prevention methods to remove this plant. A 25-pound bag of corn gluten or cornstarch-based weedkillers can cover a large area, up to 1,250 square feet. Apply these in winter before new seeds germinate and soak them in water. Then let the surface rest for 4 to 6 weeks and reapply if necessary at the same interval. Do not use within 6 weeks of the scheduled sowing date as this may also prevent the germination of the plants you plan to grow.
Ortho's Groundclear organic form is possibly one of the most effective herbicides on the market for weed killing. They use the soap salt known as ammonium nonanoate to kill weeds in select areas, and they have an OMRI-rated formula acceptable for organic gardening use (but check the packaging for the OMRI marking as it is a chemical also acts in the form of ground clear). Such broad spectrum herbicides can destroy other plants in the process when used on a massive scale. So avoid using it in windy weather to prevent accidental drifting. Ammonium nonanoate quickly breaks down to iron and nitrogen in the soil and does not cause long-term soil pollution. It causes the plant's tissues to begin yellowing within minutes of application, and the plant to wither to the ground and incapable of photosynthesis. This doesn't always kill the root systems of more stubborn and deeply rooted weeds, but it does take away most of the grasses with shallow root systems easily. For other forms of deeper rooting weeds, you may need to remove the root after application.
Giant foxtails are annual in summer. Source: NYSIPM
Chemical pre-emergence is a great way to get rid of green, yellow, and giant foxtail grasses from your lawn or pasture. You need to apply the pre-emergence in the spring, before temperatures rise above 55 degrees. After applying, do nothing to the lawn or pasture for four months. This allows the weed preventer to do its job and you don't have to waste time sowing just to kill your weed immediately when it shows up.
If you want to eradicate foxtail plants in a huge pasture, use glyphosate. Although those familiar with horticulture and ranching know that glyphosate herbicides have a stigma around them, herbicides like these are sometimes the best option for several acres to hundreds of acres of land. The use of this chemical on the leaves and awns of any specific foxtail grass plant prevents the killing of other grasses which are also beneficial for livestock and soil ecology. As with ammonium nonanoate, this method is a point treatment method when trying to care for other plants in the area. However, unlike ammonium nonanoate, glyphosate remains in the soil and provides continuous weed prevention for a period of time. You will still need it as spot treatment, but long-term prevention in treated locations will make your work on a large property much easier.
frequently asked Questions
Foxtail seeds detach from their seed head to fly in the wind. Source: autan
Q: How do you recognize foxtail grass?
A: Look for the foxtail awns with lots of tiny hairs. The hair helps the seeds spread through the wind. Some of them are green, some are yellow, and some are brown. The leaf of the foxtail plant is elongated and pointed and protrudes from the base of the stem.
Q: Is foxtail grass bad for horses?
Answer: yes. Horses see the plant as good fodder and eat it. The awns nestle in the skin, between the hooves and even in the horse's mouth or tongue – wherever they can. This can lead to serious infections that can threaten the lives of horses.
Q: is yellow foxtail a weed?
A: Indeed. It is also a type of grass. The leaf of the foxtail gives the plant its grassy appearance, while the hairs and awns give it the fox-like appearance.
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