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.