WICHE: Crabgrass’s history reveals its multiple uses

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By Jeneen Wiche

I heard someone lamenting their crabgrass the other day; they were convinced that this was the worst year ever.

Maybe so, but usually by this time crabgrass rears its ugly head and begins to creep through our fescue lawns, sneak into our cultivated beds and, when we’re not looking, reseed its self to ensure the continuation of the species.

Sounds a bit sinister for a grass, I suppose, but it sure is difficult to control.

I don’t really see too much crabgrass at the farm, but I have noticed how there are different grasses that dominate the landscape during the dog days of summer.

I have come to the conclusion that a lawn of clover and lespedeza might serve us all better, anyway: low growing and no mowing!

Alas, back to crabgrass. It is an annual grass, so control it is all about knowing the seed.

Pre-emergents in the spring will certainly help but what many people neglect to do is to reapply the control every 6 weeks. Pre-emergents prevent seed from germinating but the active ingredient only remains viable in the soil for about 4 to 6 weeks.

Conventional chemical pre-emergents are available as well as natural corn gluten based products for this control.

A little elbow grease goes a long way this time of the year. If you have some random patches, do some hand weeding after a soaking rain.

Gingerly pull the creeping blades that have developed roots out of their entanglement with your fescue.

Once you have loosened these you can better grip the main, center roots and pull it right out. Reseeding of bare areas after the crabgrass is removed can be done now, too.

Don’t leave bare patches for other weeds to take hold.

For more significant crabgrass problems, you may need to apply a herbicide labeled for crabgrass.

Products are most effective when the crabgrass is in the earlier stages of growth, so I would consider a chemical treatment at present a waste because the grasses will die out as the seasons change.

However, if you notice a considerable problem this year you can be prepared for some control measures as the light green clumps of crabgrass begin to appear next year.

Check with your local garden centers for corn gluten pre-emergents to control weeds throughout the season: apply as the forsythia begin to bloom and continue to apply as directed throughout the season.

Getting crabgrass under control usually takes several years of using control methods and proper mowing techniques. Don’t mow the grass too short, and if you fertilize your lawn, only do so in the fall of the year to encourage healthy fescue instead of healthy weeds!

You may be quite surprised at the history of crabgrass and how it was first introduced in the United States.

Actually it came across the ocean with immigrants from Europe who had cultivated crabgrass for the seed. Crabgrass seed was used like millet.....a common ingredient in porridges and breads.

Its culinary use declined because of the more efficient crops of corn and wheat (it took 100,000 crabgrass seeds to make a pound), so crabgrass became cattle fodder. As the native summer fodder browned out, the green crabgrass proved appealing to cattle.

Crabgrass declined in use as fodder by the turn of the century but the invasive grass had already planted its seed.

In a relatively short period of time crabgrass has spread throughout the entire United States. Once we started to have manicured lawns crabgrass really went crazy.

It was more noticeable, for one thing, but more then anything else the fact that we were mowing our lawns short meant that the crabgrass seed could make contact with the soil at a much higher percentage (that’s one of the reasons why you should not mow shorter then 2½ inches).

Yet another lesson in how human activity can change the environment of a continent.