Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to Kill Fox Tails and Wild Lettuce

Foxtails in an ugly mess of laurel, 4th Street between I and J, from the alley

Fox tails are beginning to ripen their seed all over town, mixed with cheat grass and other weeds, and infesting lawns.  It is a well-known sticker seed, sticking in pets’ fur and working its barbed seeds into their flesh.  Like cheat, it is a major fire hazard.  Its name describes the seed heads, looking like a fox’s brushy tail. 

Foxtails in boxwood

Like nearly all annual grasses, it is easiest to see and pull when it has seed stalks.    Unlike many of them, it grows full size-heads even after being mowed.   It stands out clearly in a lawn as it starts to ripen, yellow-green and ugly against the darker green of lawn grass.   

Foxtails in a Bermuda grass lawn

So does annual rye, but it is a lot smaller and nicer annual grass whose seeds don’t stick and can be smothered with an inch of compost because they are small.  Fox tail seeds are large and can come up through several inches of compost; heavy leaves are more effective, and a good way to stop them in flower beds.  But even light leaves can soften the soil and make it easier to pull weeds.

 Foxtails in permeable pavement, at Bimart.  How much do you want to bet they will grow there?

It is hard to pull mowed foxtails when they are dry in dry ground; water it and pull it before it gets to that point.  Gather up the stalks in each clump and give it a good yank; you will clear it out more quickly than you would think. 

Wild lettuce on city property
Wild lettuce is also starting to bloom all over.  It comes in several varieties, some uglier than others, all looking much like a dandelion with a tall, thick stalk.  It is the ugliest of weeds that spread their seeds on the breeze, and can grow head-high, adding to fire hazard.  The time to stop it, like all such weeds, is before those seeds ripen and become a nuisance rather than just an eyesore, spreading those seeds to the neighbors.

Wild lettuce on city property, with ashes, cheat, and dry bitter cress

It sticks hard in dry ground; to get the root, you will usually need to water the ground.  If you break or cut the stalk above the crown, it will grow more flowers ASAP.
Canada thistles are also showing up; they are much like wild lettuce except that they have sharp spines and blue flowers.  These can be cut below the crown with loppers or even just kicked out of the ground; the spines can make hand-pulling difficult, but by the time it is sending up flowers, it has little food in the root; young plants are easy to pull.
Take all seeding lettuce, dandelion, thistles, and other composites to a commercial composter; the seeds will continue to ripen and fly after they are pulled.
The best prevention for weeds is leaf mulch, which doesn’t make a good weed seed bed until it becomes soil.  What weeds do grow in leaves are easily pulled because the soil is fed and loosened.  Leaves should be cleaned off lawns, pavements, paths and buildings, and spread on soil, to feed and protect it.


  1. Some weeds are edible. Might need to learn a new skill and decrease the grocery bill. Also, the nutrition values are through the rood and better than what you would find in store. This is not a joke.

  2. Darling, I've been eating wild edibles since I was 18 and I'm 55. I ate some wild lettuce from my yard last year, when it was not yet bolting. I write about chickweed as a wild edible because it is much better and doesn't get bitter when flowering.

    But when it comes to gardening, a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place. Those that have disorderly habits, particularly a tendency to take over, are inherently weedy. Its edibility is irrelevant once it flowers; it must be stopped.

    Wild lettuce is a case in point. It can be eaten if you get it soon enough, but once it bolts, it is a danger to other plants and the orderly look of the yard. It will quickly take all the sunlight and nutrients from other plants, and looks ugly as heck, and its seeds fly on the wind, a nuisance to neighbors.

    Chickweed, on the other hand; lies low; drops its seeds at its feet; dies down and dries to a mulch; and is done until next fall or spring once it seeds out and dies. If you want to keep fighting (or picking) it all summer, pull the top off before it makes seed, and it will keep trying to make seed; the root does not pull. It's a weed that I tolerate, and even deliberately spread, because it blocks spring weeds and its mulch blocks summer weeds like wild lettuce.

  3. I've quit adding to this blog. Check out these sites: