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Horsetail: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

horsetail

We’ve had a number of questions this season about a weed known as horsetail, Equisetum arvense L. The plant, which grows just about everywhere in the U.S. except Florida and other parts of the deep South, is one of the most annoying in the garden if you’re trying to keep it clean. Others, however, love horsetail for its various uses in the kitchen or medicine cabinet.

I’ve never known it to be a huge problem on lawns that are mown regularly, but the plant can be nasty in perennial gardens and orchards due to a deep root system that only flourishes more when you break off the upper stems.

Here’s what you need to know before you decide how to deal with the plant:

THE GOOD SIDE: A “bio-accumulator” like dandelion, horsetail takes up all sorts of nutrients from the soil including copper, lead, zinc, cadmium and even gold. Holistic gardeners use extracts of field horsetail make fungicides for blackspot on roses and rust in mint. It has herbal uses, too, and many cultures see the shoots of horsetail as a valuable food source. I’ve never tried it myself and I don’t recall my grandmother gathering the stuff, but I do recall the painter Neil Welliver — a great organic gardener by the way — telling me that his family used to eat the stuff.

THE BAD SIDE: Horsetail is a true nuisance in fields since it’s toxic to sheep, cattle and horses. Hay with too much horsetail is considered a waste material.

THE UGLY SIDE: As a “weed” in the garden, it can be very difficult to eradicate without true diligence. The roots can reportedly grow up to 200 feet long, although I’ve never witnessed them more than a mere 10 feet or so. However long it grows, those roots pose the problem, since a new conical horsetail can easily emerge from any point on a broken piece of root.

ERADICATION — Don’t try just pulling or rototilling the plant out because it will most certainly grow back if nothing else is done. Black plastic sheeting or rubber pond liner or roofing underlayment works well. Depending on the time of year, you’ll need to leave the plastic or rubber in place for four to 12 weeks; the warmer it is outside the faster this control will work.

Like virtually all weeds, the presence of horsetail is an indicator of various soil conditions such as excess moisture, low pH, and poor drainage. Regular mowing and leaving the grass plants tall will help eradicate the plant in a lawn area.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • http://www.gardeningrhythms.com Paul Holowko

    The picture shown above is the female version of horsetail. The mail version does do not have hairs coming off the stems.

    I understand horsetail to be a problem. In the West coast, it’s Bermuda grass. We can’t get rid of it. Funny thing is that both propagate in the same way. And it has to deal with water content. Horsetail needs lots of water, while Bermuda grass needs little to nothing. Horsetail is as old as gingo. They have found fossils of horsetail during the prehistoric time period.

    During the Glacieral time period, horsetail was almost eliminated, but the Glaciers did not make it to CA; hence, it survived and pushed all over east. It is a reality old plant; hence, still using gender for reproduction. Mostly, it propagates by roots.
    It is the best source of silica as an accumulator and gree
    n manure for your compost. It can also be used in wet areas for erosion control. As for the problems in the garden, dig it up and through it on the compost. There is not much you can do. If you do want to used horsetail as a decoration (Mainly used as a miniature bamboo) , make sure you use a pot, it take over. A long planter along side of a building is the most common use. It can also be put into a fish pond.

    Paul Holowko

    www,gardeningrhythms.com

  • K M Kelly

    If it needs moisture, how come it is growing so well in my dead sand berms that I planted my pines in? This spring in Maine is one of the driest I can remember and the horsetail is growing very well. Golf courses have a chemical they spray that controls it but never seems to permanently rid.

    • Paul Tukey

      KM,
      My guess is that the horsetail around your pine trees came from the root balls of the pines and then the horsetail established itself when you watered in the pines, but that’s just a guess. Horsetail doesn’t generally establish itself on its own in a dry area, but will do OK there once it’s already established.

  • Scott Morgan

    Hi Paul,

    Always glad for weed tips! In my yard I’m having a heck of a time with what I believe is barnyard grss….it’s just about everywhere. You’ve largely converted me into a “listen to weeds, then pull ‘em” and “if you mow ‘em you won’t see ‘em” kinda guy, but this one is definitely making my life more difficult. Unlike dandelions, you can’t pull barnyard grass very easily and the sheer number of them makes that unlikely anyway. The real problem is that neither of my reel mowers can handle them. When they are low the heads are thick and clog up the mower. If they are tall the reel mower can’t deal with the thick stems and leaves the dried out tips brimming with seeds. It’s literally doubling or tripling my yardwork since in some places the mower gets completely stuck, even when mowing 2 to 3″ high…can you offer any advice?

    Thanks as always,
    Scott Morgan

  • Paul Tukey

    Scott,
    True barnyard grass, Echinochloa crusgalli, is an annual. So if it’s already growing tall and stout, the best thing to do is wait until fall when the plants die back and overseed with desirable grass seed. The soil Indications are low calcium, phosphorus, humus, bacteria; and also high potassium, magnesium and sulfur. Cut the plant regularly so it never goes to seed through out the season.

    I’ve always found that a few swings with the scythe helps keep the barnyard grass under control.

    • Scott Morgan

      Hi Paul,

      I think I could take up an entire afternoon asking you questions on how to deal with this stuff, but for now I’ll limit my follow up to the issue of mowing.

      I don’t believe the stuff is “true” barnyard grass since it doesn’t look exactly like pictures I can find of Echinochloa crusgalli, so it must be a close relative. It’s coming up in bunches, kind of like a flower boquet (an inverted cone)and is thick with the greenish purple heads. Once it gets about 4 inches tall though it appears more like a dried out wheat stalk and easily snaps off from the base which is still thick and green. Not sure if any of that helps identify it or if it’s more likely to be a perennial…which would obviously be a much bigger problem.

      So, in terms of mowing, should I try to mow low enough so the seed heads don’t even form? That would be VERY short…putting green short. Or should I cut higher, letting the tips dry out and cutting them with the grass whip? I always seem to be grinding the heads up in the mower which gets me stuck multiple times each time I mow. I typically mow at 2″ since that’s as high as my Brill (this is my first season using it) will go. I also have a Scotts Classic that cuts at 3″ that I ran into the ground over the last 3 years, probably dealing with this stuff, but I am trying to get it back into working order for the heat of the summer.

      Sorry for the long detailed question. It’s just that I’ve sat outside nearly in tears after trying to keep up with my lawn while having a perfect view of my neighbor’s weed free chemically treated lawn. I’m not tempted one bit to use any pesticide with a 5 year old and a 9 month old, but some advice would really help this sleep deprived stay at home dad keep his sanity.

      Sincerely,
      Scott Morgan

  • http://www.gardeningrhythms.com Paul Holowko

    Hey Scott,

    I have a few suggestions to get rid of your grass. Depending on what part of the country you live in would determine what time of year you need to do this. If you are in the East Coast, I would start this now, since you are coming out of dormancy. Sheet much the crap out of it and let the Spring rains keep it wet. Place straw or mulch over the paper/cardboard to keep it moist. It is important to make sure you do this before the grass bolts flowers and seeds. If you do not do the whole area, places that is not covered will re-seed what you just killed. It is also important to make sure you overlap your cardboard by a least 6 inches. And no holes in the cardboard. This is the place where people fail in sheet composting. Wait a few months and you have dead grass that is composted back into the ground. The cardboard will be gone too. Make sure you take the tape off if you are using boxes. By using this method, I have gotten rid of lawns for replanting in only a few months.
    If you are in a dryer part of the county, then start sheet composting in November and let the winter rains keep it moist; free water.

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