Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), also known locally as foxtail grass, is an invasive annual that’s widespread in Santa Fe and across much of New Mexico.
It‘s a problem of the first magnitude. In many areas of the Western U.S., native plant ecosystems have been replaced by cheatgrass, causing the widespread loss of habitat and greatly diminished wildlife populations.
Pet owners, beware. The ripe seed heads are extremely dangerous to our dogs and cats as well as to wildlife. The finely barbed seeds ripen by mid-June and the sharp tips easily pierce skin, clothing and non-leather shoes and boots. As any Northern New Mexico veterinarian will attest, they readily get into pet’s ears as well as puncture their skin, where the barbed seed can move deeply into paws, flesh and even organs.
Once dead and dried by mid- to late June (it’s an annual grass that completes its lifecycle in one growing season), this plant becomes highly flammable and burns quickly with intense heat. Hence, it presents an extreme fire hazard when growing around homes and outbuildings as well as under dry brush and junipers.
Together as a community, we can control cheatgrass in Santa Fe. We can make a big impact on weed populations if we prevent cheatgrass from forming ripe seeds. When we do the following simple tasks we can have a huge impact on controlling the spread of this invasive weed.
Go outdoors and look for where the cheatgrass in growing. In early spring, it’s the first plant to start greening up. Look for green grass shoots in partially shaded areas under chamisa (rabbitbrush) and other native shrubs; on the north and east sides of coyote fences and in the ditches along dirt roads
You can always pull this grass from February-April, but it can be labor-intensive if you have large infested areas. Alternatively, in March, apply a natural, nontoxic herbicide to quickly kill young plants. Thoroughly spray with Burn-Out Formula II (a mixture, available locally, of citric acid and clove oil), or by mixing your own homebrew of household vinegar, Epsom salt and liquid dish soap. Apply on a warm, sunny day when day temperatures are above 50 degrees.
Or, from mid- to late May, there is a 10-day window in which a well-timed mowing with a lawnmower or weed wacker will prevent the seeds from ripening. Wait until the plants have green, with just a touch of burgundy, drooping seed heads to cut them down. Homeowners, business owners, city, state and federal offices should be ready to cut down the cheatgrass during this 10-day window. Put this task on your calendar, or book a landscape maintenance company to help. Plan now.
If you miss cutting the immature grass during the 10-day period in May, you’ll have to cut or pull the plants with ripe seeds in summer to diminish fire danger. And you must thoroughly rake up and throw the litter into the trash. Otherwise, the seeds will fall off and remain to germinate later.
Make this a community effort
Once you identify this weed, you’ll see it your own yards, neighbors’ yards and the arroyos. Share this information and encourage your neighbors to join in the effort to control cheatgrass in Santa Fe. Each and every homeowner who makes the effort will have a positive impact. Together we can make a difference.