Fox tail

Question form Jake: Fox tail has taken over my lawn in the back yard. I have a grazing tortoise that lives back there so using toxic weed killer is out of the question. Is there any solution? What would you suggest?

Answer from Pat: Several grasses of the Alopecurus, Bromus, Hordeum, and Setaria genuses share the common name of “foxtail grass” or “spear grass”. I don’t know which one you have, but all are hazardous to animals. Wall barley or false barley (Hordeum murinum), is one of the worst. All of the foxtail grasses endanger longhaired dogs and many other animals since they become entangled in the animals’ hair, traveling through it and finally piercing through the skin into the flesh and also into animals’ ears, noses, and eyes. These foxtails cause miserable pain and suffering to animals and even in some cases they can cause death. Whereas turtles don’t have hair, foxtail grasses, bromes, barleys, and millets can all get up under the legs of turtles, under the shell, and enter their flesh, causing inflammation and disease. They can also be dangerous if ingested.

My recommendation is first to treat all the clumps of foxtail with a non-chemical, non-poisonous weed killer. One possibility is to use straight vinegar (a strong but non-poisonous acid.) Simply pour it on the roots of the plants. Another suggestion is to use human urine (a strong but non-poisonous alkaline.) Pee in a bucket and pour it straight onto the roots. You know how dogs can cause unsightly spots on your lawn. Well, use that technology yourself by doing the same. You may find this advice off-putting but this solution is free. It costs nothing and furthermore it is safe.

You need to get rid of the foxtails as quickly as possible so they don’t reseed. So, after using an organic weed killer of your choice to kill all the foxtail grass, then pull out or hoe out the clumps, bag them and send them to the dump. or use a mower or weedwacker to mow off all their tops along with their flowering heads. (If you can see the flowering heads of the foxtails your lawn must be way too long and maybe too tall to use an ordinary mower, so that’s why I suggested a weed wacker.) Do not compost the remains these since the seeds will find any way they can to proliferate. The chances are your compost won’t be hot enough to destroy them. So bag the dead plants and send them to the trash. Check the lawn after mowing and rake it carefully to make sure you have removed all the heads.

After mowing, continue treating with your organic weed killer until all the clumps have turned straw-colored and are completely dead. Then pull or hoe them out. A long-handled, goose-hook weeder works well for this job. If you used the alkaline method you can balance the soil again by applying the acid solution. If you used the acid method, straighten it out with the alkaline and water it in. (A soil test will tell you if you succeeded, but many gardeners just pour a little vinegar on spots made by dogs and then water it in.)

Reseed the lawn with an appropriate grass for your area or replace with sod. (See the Lawn section in the monthly chapter for March in my organic book beginning on page 129 for ideas for drought-resistant lawn grasses.) Once you have renewed your lawn, fertilize it regularly to keep it growing thickly so weeds won’t invade it. Also, treat it once or twice a year with an organic pre-emergent herbicide such as Corn Gluten Meal to keep the weed seeds from germinating, but don’t do this prior to seeding or of course your new lawn won’t grow.


  1. Thankful Gardener

    Thank you very much for response. I follow your instructions and let you
    know how it goes. I am going to order your new book for some hints for the
    rest of my garden.

    • Very kind of you to reply and I will welcome news of your attempts to eradicate foxtail grass. Thanks loads for sending for the book. I hope it solves all your garden problems and contributes to your happiness in and with your garden.

  2. Janet Cowgill

    Awesome advice. Our Brussels puppy just had a foxtail removed from behind his eye. We have Round-Up but I read it was bad for pets. I will try the vinegar method! Thank you!!

    • Purchase a gallon of white vinegar and pour it on the weeds as necessary, wetting the green tops as well as the roots. So glad to hear you were helped by this post.
      I am glad you found the foxtail in time to have it safely removed from your puppy’s eye.

  3. Our whole back yard (rented house) is nothing but fox tail, it is awful. Can I just spray the entire yard with vinegar, everything is totally weeds, fox tails galore. Thanks

    • In all my years of living in California this weedy grass has never been as rampant as it has been this year after all the rain. Those rains must have woken up every dormant seed buried in the ground for many years and the temperatures had something to do with it too.

      Vinegar won’t help. Foxtails are annual plants. They are going to die anyway and leave their seeds for other years. The only thing to do is to pull out the plants, bag them and send them to the dump with your green waste. I don’t even recommend composting at this point since I fear the seeds will live to sprout another year.

      I don’t know what your finances permit but I will tell you what I did. I was lucky to find a reliable man, called Juan, who is willing to work for $10.00 an hour. I had him pull out all the foxtails on the road edges, bag them, and rake and clean up the ground. I had no major problem inside my garden because I regularly cover all bare ground with mulch.

      One of my neighbors with a large garden had a very bad problem with foxtails under all the trees and shrubs in his garden because he does not mulch the ground. I suggested he hire Juan. He hired Juan for two days to pull out the foxtails. My gardener pulled the ones that were on a steep bank adjacent to my property. I have been paying these men to pull foxtail grasses and other weeds out of adjoining property where the residents are elderly and cannot afford to have them removed. That way the seeds won’t end up back in my garden.

      Our soil is mostly sandy so these grasses are easy to pull out. However, if the roots stick tight in hard ground, such as adobe, the plants will be hard to pull out. Then you could weed-wack them leaving the roots in the ground. They won’t sprout again, and rake them up and bag the foxtails but be sure you do this soon so the seed heads don’t open up releasing the seeds so they get into the soil.

      After getting rid of these weeds from your rented property, can you afford to order a load of mulch to cover the bare ground? Four inches of organic mulch on top of the ground covers weed seeds so they cannot germinate. Mulching the ground gets rid of most weed problems. Tree trimmers will often deliver a truckload of woodchips and chopped leaves from their chippers for nothing. It saves them a trip to the dump. This is excellent mulch, in many ways better than what you buy, since you know it’s clean. I particularly like podocarpus chips. Just spread it all over the bare soil about 3 or 4 inches deep. If there are any big chunks of wood in it, I just toss those aside under the shrubberies where they gradually rot and add to the organic content of the soil.

  4. Hello Pat,

    I have over an acre of foxtail which was weed whacked in summer
    Once they hadn’t turned yellow and dry for fire hazard
    I was planning to roto till then spray with vinegar
    Will this be effective in digging them up
    There re so many I couldn’t possibly dig each one out

    Thanks for your advice!

    • Foxtail is a common name that is used to describe several different grasses, such as wild barley, with similar spiky heads that tend to get into dog’s ears and also harm other animals by burrowing under their skin. I do not know which of these grasses you have. Some are perennial and some are annual. If the foxtail grass on your property is annual then cutting off the tops as you have done will get rid of the plants that grew this year. Those roots will gradually rot away. However it will take some time. But you will need to address the problem of the seeds that have been left on the ground. If your foxtails are annual and you mowed them down while they were still green and raked up and got rid of every single seed head, your problems would be mainly over. However, you do not say that you did that. You state you weed-wacked, but you fail to state you raked up all the remains, bagged them and sent them to the dump, which would have been the wise thing to do. Vinegar will do nothing to help you get rid of foxtail, so forget about that. Rototilling will bury the roots and any seeds of foxtail remaining in your soil. If the roots of your foxtail grasses are perennial they will simply grow again and you will need to actively remove them by raking them up after rototilling. If they are annual foxtail, which is likely, burying the roots will help them rot. In either case you need to apply a pre-emergent herbicide, such as corn gluten meal, which is organic, to prevent the seeds from germinating in winter with the rains. The only other way to get rid of foxtails is to pull or destroy all the new plants as they arise. This can be done by repeated rototilling as soon as the green plants sprout. Do this again and again as needed this winter and next spring and pull out the plants around the edges and you will eventually win out.

  5. Can I burn the foxtail with a torch…will they return?

    • Some communities have laws against using torches to burn weeds for fear of starting a fire. So check the laws where you live first. I am not sure what plant you are referring to as foxtail since that is a common name applied to several plants. Some are annual and some are perennial. In general, if you kill the meristem layer of a perennial plant with a torch then you kill the plant but you must also destroy all the seeds. The meristem layer is very low to the ground on plants such as perennial grasses or any perennial plant that animals graze on. This is why we can mow lawns, which are perennial grasses (plants that survive year after year), without killing the grass. Note also that after fire, chaparral plants spring back to life. This is because their roots stay alive and their dormant buds are awakened by fire. Annual weeds, however, (i.e.: Plants that spring up from seeds, live for one season and make seeds that year and then die) can usually be successfully killed by torching them. If you kill it before it drops seeds then you have a chance of success but if not you must also destroy all the seeds or it will come back the following spring. This is why the best way is to destroy weeds as soon as they spring up before they have a chance to go to seed.

  6. FOXTAIL Emergency With my Dog eating Gobs and gobs of tall green FOXTAILS that have flowered but not dried.

    Two nights ago I visited a friend with my dog. His property covered in tall green FOXTAILS & weeds. I had no idea about FOXTAILS till now. We live in california mountains & our dog is unfamiliar with grass. She ate Gobs & gobs of green FOXTAILS yet I had no education on this. My dog was sick all night in pain it appeared. I wasn’t sure if she had hiccups but sounded like she couldn’t breathe, swallowing, coughing & GAGING. I had no idea & thought grass eating was ok for dogs & didn’t realize it was the grass that was & is still making her sick.
    I’m 1 1/2 hours from a town. I new to area. This morning, she vomited a Hug plate high of FOXTAILS with blood. She was hungry & drinking water the 1st day not so much today. She pooped the 1st day & see lots of grass of with FOXTAILS.
    She’s not her perky pit bull happy spunky self.
    Today is the 2nd day. She didn’t want to go outside. She just wants to sleep. She did finally go outside , head down & walking slowly. She peed & pooped out more FOXTAILS. The vet suggested emergency exploratory Surgery to remove each Foxtail embedded in her stomach, throat & intestinal tract. This is really unfortunate cause the surgery is so Costly with no Guarantee!

    Her mouth is very sore. She won’t let me get a look. She normally is super easy going. I pray these tails are all out & she’s gonna be ok.

    I’m posting this hear so others can learn from this. I was not educated. This was not my home & was told by friend , my dog eating the grass was fine. As we all see … Eating tall green grass with FOXTAILS is not and could be the end to my doggie. I am heartbroken today and don’t know what to do 🙁
    Wish us luck !!! 🙁

    • I am so sorry to hear that your dog ate foxtails. What a terrible experience for her and for you. I am glad you wrote it here so other dog-owners can see and learn.

  7. I’m wondering if I mowed and bagged the foxtail, time after time would I eventually get rid of it. I have 6 acres that are covered with it, I’ve been told by hay man to till it under and replant so that is an option. I’m in the market for a new ztr mower and was wondering if maybe I could buy one with a bagger and get rid of it, Hate this stuff,

    • My opinion is that you would also need to use a pre-emergent herbicide in order to remove it entirely. Even then, birds can bring back seeds.

  8. I want to get rid of foxtail grass without going broke! I didn’t know whether I should get a boom sprayer for my compact tractor and just kill everything off early in the season, or simply mow, mow, mow. I’d like to re-seed the back pasture for my horses. Any suggestions?

    • Utilize Soil Sterilization using clear plastic during hot summer weather to kill the foxtail grasses. Then clean up all dead grass and seeds or plow the grass and weeds under the soil. After that apply preemergent herbicide according to package directions at least twice, before and after the fall and winter rains. Usually it is recommended to apply preemergents in February. If despite your attempt to do the job correctly, the grass begins to sprout, then plow under once again and reapply the product.

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