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Removing Horsetail Weeds From Your Garden and Patio

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Gardening has long been my retreat from the tribulations of daily life. Weeding has its own pleasures, but horsetail weeds are troublesome.

Horsetail weeds specialise in crowding out flower beds and exploiting gaps and cracks in paving.

Horsetail weeds specialise in crowding out flower beds and exploiting gaps and cracks in paving.

A Gardener's War Against Horsetail Weeds

I am a gardener on a mission. For the last three years, these diabolical scourges of my garden have been steadily, but relentlessly, encroaching on my outside space. First appearing as a single, innocuous, feather-like green stem within a newly laid gravel path, then gradually, but purposely exploiting any small crack or gap in the stone patio—before spreading into flower beds where it is now crowding out other plants. I had no clue as to this plant's intention and how it would bring out a determination in me to rid myself of this predator once and for all.

Before I get ahead of myself, however, I should explain why a horsetail weed is so difficult to remove.

Why Is This Plant Difficult to Remove?

Firstly, this plant has ancient origins, having changed little since its ancestors dominated the environment during the Carboniferous period (a 60-million-year time span dating back some 350 million years).

The horsetail is a particularly stubborn plant to eradicate from your garden. It is a creeping plant with an underground rhizomatous stem system that can penetrate up to 6 feet below ground. Additionally, the horsetail is a nonflowering plant that reproduces through the use of spores scattered on the wind.

What Does a Horsetail Weed Look Like?

This plant has two easily recognisable stages to its growth.

Spring: Light brown fertile stems appear. These are about 12 inches tall with a cone-shaped structure at the tip of the stem (often resembling little fir trees). This structure produces spores.

Summer: Little green shoots appear and develop into fir tree or feathery like plants that can grow to be about 2 feet tall. At this stage, the plants are sterile.

Horsetail Facts: Know Your Enemy

Common Types of Horsetail Plants in the Garden

There are many variations of this perennial plant (more than 30 species), although the most recognisable within most gardens are commonly known as:

  • Mare's Tail
  • Snake Grass
  • Horse Pipes
  • Joint Grass

The particular variety of horsetail that has imposed itself upon my garden is the field horsetail (Equisetum arvense). This plant is part of the puzzlegrass family.

Does the Horsetail Plant Have Any Beneficial Uses?

Now, in the interests of fairness, I should explain that this bane of my life does have its supporters. It is a herb, and in times past was also utilised to:

  • act as a wood polish.
  • as a scouring agent to clean pots and pans.
  • as an addition to beauty products.

It also has medicinal uses, including:

  • lowering bold pressure,
  • preventing bleeding,
  • alleviating a sore throat,
  • treating wounds and burns, and
  • strengthening brittle nails.

That said, to me—right now—this plant has worn out any welcome on my little plot of land, and it has just got to go!

Horsetail Weeds: Persistent, Relentless and Infuriating

The majority of gardeners acknowledge weeds as being an integral part of nature and expect to spend a portion of their time weeding. They are a fact of life, and in the main, they accept this as a routine task.

Horsetail herbs (weeds to most) are in a different class than the common dandelion or patch of clover that inhabits all gardens. Horsetails resist any attempt to shift them, and I feel the odds stacked against me as I repeatedly have my hopes raised by short-lived successes before the plant fights back, retakes all the ground I had just won and marches on a further yard.

Horsetails invading my patio area. This is after several attempts to weed them out.

Horsetails invading my patio area. This is after several attempts to weed them out.

Actions to Avoid When Attempting to Weed Horsetail Plants From a Paved Patio or Garden

Hopefully, this list of attempted actions and the results will save you a great deal of wasted time and added frustration as you try to rid yourself of any horsetail weeds that have taken root on your paths, stone patio areas or flower beds.

Plastic Sheeting

Not recommended. I have tried covering the area with unsightly black plastic. Yet, after months without sunlight, they spring into life when exposed to light once again.

Fire

Not recommended. Apart from the inherent dangers of attempting to burn the infestation out, horsetails have a natural defence against such an action. Their deep-rooted roots and tubas are safe from the flames and heat. And while their external frowns are scorched away, the reproductive cycle of this plant will continue unabated.

Mowing

Not recommended. Mowing or slashing are ineffective methods of controlling this plant due to its rhizome system and deeply buried tubas. In desperation, I have sometimes attempted to mow down these weeds from the cracks and joints in the patio. It doesn't work and merely leaves an unsightly, short-bristled stubble that then makes it even more difficult to remove by hand.

Raking Out the Cracks and Gaps in the Patio

Not recommended. Though it might be satisfying to bring out the big guns and see those blighters scoured from the ground, using a patio rake brush specifically designed to dig out those gaps, joints and cracks in a paved area is a somewhat quicker approach than hand-pulling. But you are actually at much more risk of accidentally spreading small pieces further afield.

Bleach

Not recommended. Another often-touted method that has some effect on the above-ground plant, at least for a short time. But again, the root system remains unaffected. This also has the added disadvantage that any over spill of bleach can stain the stone path.

Weedkiller/Herbicides

Herbicides may have some initial success at removing the above-ground growth, but this apparent victory is often fleeting. Having tried a few of these proprietary brands, they often show initial promise—seemly having cured the problem—only to have these resistant and persistent plants reappear seemingly from the dead.

Word of warning: The initial results seem promising, however as those of us affected by horsetail know to our cost, the long term-prognosis of this plant will only be understood in the coming seasons.

Before and After: Attempt to Eradicate Horsetail Weeds Using WD40 Spray

Part of my Patio before spraying with WD40, and then 10 days later after brushing away the debris. An impressive start, although a small piece of the horsetail weed remains (top right). The real test will be if this invasive weed re-appears.

Part of my Patio before spraying with WD40, and then 10 days later after brushing away the debris. An impressive start, although a small piece of the horsetail weed remains (top right). The real test will be if this invasive weed re-appears.

What Does Work Against Horsetail Weeds?

The majority of those who have battled against horsetail encroachment would likely agree that there is only one sustainable method of managing any infestation, and that is persistent and dogged determination to keep delicately plucking new growing shoots from the ground. Great care is needed not to re-spread small broken off pieces accidentally.

Removing by Hand

The battle against horsetail is a war of attrition. The gardener will have to commit to a sustained course of action that endures over many years. The careful and systematic removal of new shoots, as soon as they appear, is the only realistic way that has any real chance of reducing the spread. But don't be fooled, the moment you relax and sit on your laurels, the horsetail plant will reappear from its deeply rooted underground hide.

How Else Can Horsetail Weeds Be Managed?

There is a saying that goes: "If you can't beat them, join them."

I am not yet ready to admit defeat against this adversary. The wounds are too fresh, and I continue to search for the "magic bullet" that will turn around my fortunes. But a strategy that works for many is to accept that the horsetail is here to stay and that you may as well try and live with it in a spirit of mutual respect.

I have seen gardens where they have accepted its presence in flower beds, and borders and the planting of large-leaved flowers and shrubs is a tool used to hide the horsetail from view. Others celebrate the bright green stems of the horsetail and allow it to inhabit the undergrowth and gaps in planting.

Should I Keep Battling the Horsetail or Embrace It?

Whichever path you choose when deciding on how to tackle an influx of horsetail weeds into your garden, I wish you well.

For now, I will continue to see them as an adversary. You may choose to save yourself the stress and knock-backs that come hand-in-hand with my decision and select a more friendly route of coexistence.

Whatever your choice, hopefully, advance knowledge of some of the trials and tribulations that have beset my attempts to tackle the horsetail weed will assist you in what lies ahead.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Danny from India on August 05, 2020:

The weeds look very invasive and stubborn. I have an issue with weeds in my garden also. Your tips will be helpful to cross-check mine.

Thanks Ben.