Every gardener has at least one weedy bete noir and my allotment has two. There is the ubiquitous nemesis that is Couch Grass, which spreads like wildfire but can at least be dug out (usually in handfuls of white roots like spaghetti – If only it were so useful). We are currently experimenting in the wild garden with Yellow Rattle to weaken its advance. More on that another day.
Worse than couch in my estimation is Mare’s Tail – also known as Horsetail. There are varieties that prefer boggy ground but all share the tendency to take over any patch. I was horrified to see a ‘Zebra Horsetail’ being sold in the local B&M store. Imagine paying to introduce the scourge! That said people also buy Alchemilla which, though very pretty, self seeds in tough clumps that take some digging out once established so who knows…
But I digress. Getting back to Mare’s Tail, it is easily recognised by its upright, fir tree-like shoots that appear in summer. In spring, fertile light brown stems, 20-50cm (10-20in) tall, appear with a cone-like spore producing structure at the end of the stems. In summer, green shoots develop into fir tree-like plants, 60cm (2ft) tall. It sends wiry rhizomes in all directions at breakneck speed and can penetrate to a depth of two metres or more, making it virtually impossible to dig out. The roots are black, and even the smallest section left behind will regrow.
I forked over the raised beds last week and picked out a bucketful. Yesterday I went to sow some beans – and strands of it were poking up all over the plot! Not just in the beds themselves but in the cracks and crevices!
Another few handfuls were duly removed!
Some, like these, just snapped off. Others I managed to pull out with 20cm or so of root (always a bonus!).
Every scrap, with or without roots, is dumped into a bucket to avoid it going into the compost bins!
So how do I get rid of it?
Unlike couch grass this stuff cannot be killed by suppression with plastic sheets.
Using chemical weedkillers in raised beds where I am growing veg is plainly not an option. Chemicals can be useful where mare’s tail grows in cracks between paving etc. Note: you will need to bruise the stems before applying any sort of weedkiller for it to be effective.
I am told that spraying the bruised stems with white vinegar can also work. An experiment I have yet to try.
Some hedgerow foragers say that the young shoots are edible and should be treated like asparagus – which the shoots do vaguely resemble. I have not tried this and am not recommending it as I have no idea of its properties.
Chatting with other allotment holders the common consensus is that constant vigilance – picking and pulling every scrap as it emerges – is the only effective way but can take three or four seasons before you can see any results.
Let battle commence!