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Cheatgrass

The nodding straw-colored seed heads in this stand of cheatgrass are ripe and ready for dispersal.  The maroon seed heads are not yet ripe.

When we bought our lovely country home five miles north of the Flagstaff Mall 13 years ago, other than a handful of aspens and three cottonwood trees, landscaping was nonexistent. Being unfamiliar with the area, we made the decision to let everything grow, weeding out the bad stuff and keeping the good.

Early that spring the ditch at the front of our property became carpeted with bright green grass bearing nodding panicles of seeds. As the season progressed the seed heads morphed from green to a comely maroon-brown. Each pendulous seed head reminded me of a mare’s tail, especially when it kicked up in the wind. This was a good thing — or so I thought.

Much to my dismay, we received a notice of violation from our homeowners’ association ordering us to clear the weeds from our ditch. My take on that: “It’s just grass! What harm can a little grass do?” But dutifully, we got rid of the grass. Some of our neighbors, however didn’t, allowing the grass to run its life cycle.

We soon became acutely aware why this lovely grass was considered a weed. By mid-June its bowing seed heads had become straw-colored, parched and bristly. If you walked through a patch of it, the panicles would disintegrate, releasing dozens of needle-like awns, piercing through and boring into any and all clothing and into the skin. Neighbors were complaining of expensive veterinarian bills due to the barbed seeds penetrating pets’ ears and feet.

This weedy grass has a name: cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), a.k.a. downy brome, June grass, early chess, drooping brome, and more. An introduced annual from Eastern Europe and Asia, cheatgrass grows from seed in areas disturbed by fire, overgrazing, and agriculture, or any disturbed sites such as roadsides, railways, and my ditch. It was given the moniker “cheatgrass” because cattle relish it in early spring, but the grass promptly dries up, becoming inedible by mid-June. (I’m not only one fooled by its good looks.)

Cheatgrass seeds germinate in autumn or winter when rainfall is sufficient. Its roots mature throughout the winter, and the seedlings emerge in early spring, often becoming established before other plants have an opportunity to catch hold. If winter moisture is sparse, the seeds are capable of germinating during moist springs. The life cycle is short, with seeds maturing as early as late spring. Each plant may produce as many as 300 seeds, which are dispersed by wind, rodents, attachment to animal fur, water, vehicles and even livestock hay and grain. It is capable of producing a second crop in the same year. Seeds may remain viable for two to five years in the soil.

Because cheatgrass dries out more quickly than other grasses and native plants, it is extremely flammable. In vast regions throughout the West, it has displaced the native vegetation, bringing on earlier fire seasons, increased soil erosion, and reduced water quality and availability.

My husband and I have learned that the best way for us to control cheatgrass is to hand pull it and bag it. We weedwhack or mow it only before it develops seed heads, but even then we often have to pull it later, because the stubble is capable of growing seed. Our ditch no longer becomes carpeted with it, because we have allowed native plants and wildflowers to become established. These include native grasses, penstemon, skyrocket gilia, gaillardia, aster, sunflower and fleabane.

Grazing livestock on cheatgrass in early spring before seed heads have formed is a method of control for large areas. (Bear in mind that the seed heads can injure the mouths of livestock.) Disking or tilling is effective if done before seed heads turn purple. Or, to kill the seed in late spring, bury the seed at least three inches deep by disking or tilling and then planting a preferred species in the fall.

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Gardening questions can be sent to CoconinoMasterGardeners@gmail.com or you can leave a question on the Master Gardener Hotline 928-773-6115 and a Master Gardener will return your call.

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