A GROWING CONCERN: A few tips to ride out the scourge of horsetail

OUR GARDEN NIRVANA here on the Peninsula has been shattered by the omnipresent horsetail.

I get this question all the time, and my answer is always the same.

Dear Andrew:

Tell me the most effective way to remove horsetail from my yard? Thanks.

Signed, Done Horsing Around

Dear Done Horsing Around:

If it is any consolation, suffering from the scourge of horsetail is a problem you share with roughly half of all gardeners on the Peninsula.

The other half live in fear that this demon weed will come galloping through their yards soon.

For me, unfortunately, horsetail comes into my landscape projects all too often, riding bareback and unbridled on the tree’s root ball from the originating nursery.

But enough with the puns. You asked to get advice straight from the horse’s mouth …

Horsetail is the regional common plant name, also known as shave grass, scouring rush, bottlebrush or, to many across North America and Europe, one of the four horsemen of the “Garden Apocalypse.”

To botanists, it is called Equisetum arvense and derives both its most common name and Latin categorization because of the resemblance of plume-like branches to a horse’s tail.

But it is actually the emerging whitish-to-light-brown, hollow and un-branched stem that produces spores and aids in reproduction.

The problem with horsetail is just how well it thrives in diverse conditions that range from wet, poorly drained areas to beaches, gravel roads, berms, gardens, lawns, pastures, orchards and most likely over your entire property.

The plant’s ancestry goes back millions of years to the dinosaur age, where it flourished as prehistoric trees and forests.

Horsetail actually is responsible for a good percentage of current coal deposits.

Horsetail is the cockroach of weeds: highly adaptable and lying deep in the ground, where it produces rhizomes that can grow over 6 feet high.

Then, because the rhizomes are heavily noded (areas that can produce new shoots) and deep, pulling them out only snaps them off and produces more shoots.

In fact, in a 1985 research project, Canadian scientists hand-weeded a plot 16 times in a single season and the next year, that plot looked identical to the control area next to it.

In Wisconsin, one area was sprayed three times in a single season with Round Up weed killer only to produce a dense area the next year of a monoculture of horsetail because everything else was killed off.

Here are my recommendations for control:

Be vigilant: If you have a beginning problem, aggressively attack it, unrelentingly digging down and pulling out all the rhizomes.

Comingle plants: Horsetail is native and makes feathery, fernlike undergrowth. In other words, embrace this plant or use it with ornamental flowers such as cosmos or cleome, which have similar foliage and whose low leaves look poor as the seasons progress. Horsetail will hide that visual flaw.

Shade: Horsetail does very poorly in shade, so tower many dense plants above it in order to shade it out.

Mowing: Mowing over a period of time will keep it in check and suppress it, which is why you don’t find it in lawns or pastures much.

Cover: Cover it up (my favorite trick) by using the best commercial woven nylon fabric available. Make sure to overlap the seams a foot or more.

No herbicides: Don’t use herbicides, for they mostly just chemically pinch it.

Besides, the products that do work are incredibly hazardous to you, other plants, birds, bees, worms and our watersheds.

So don’t horse around with them.

________

Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsula dailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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