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. It first appeared as a single, innocuous, feather-like green stem within a newly laid gravel path, then gradually exploited 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 to rid myself of this predator once and for all. However, before I get ahead of myself, I should explain why a horsetail weed is challenging 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 six feet below ground. Additionally, the horsetail is a nonflowering plant that reproduces through spores scattered in the wind.
How to Recognize a Horsetail Weed
This plant has two easily recognizable stages to its growth.
Spring: Light brown fertile stems appear. These are about 12 inches tall with a cone-shaped structure at the stem's tip (often resembling little fir trees). This structure produces spores.
Summer: Little green shoots appear and develop into fir trees or feathery like plants that can grow to be about two feet tall. At this stage, the plants are sterile.
Common Types of Horsetail Plants in the Garden
There are many variations of this perennial plant (more than 30 species), although the most recognizable within most gardens are commonly known as:
- Mare's Tail
- Snake Grass
- Horse Pipes
- Joint Grass
The particular variety of horsetail imposed upon my garden is the field horsetail (Equisetum arvense). This plant is part of the puzzle grass family.
Does the Horsetail Plant Have Any Beneficial Uses?
Now, in fairness, I should explain that this bane of my life has its supporters. The horsetail is an herb. In times past, it was also utilized 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.
- 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 an integral part of nature and expect to spend a portion of their time weeding. They are a fact of life, and they accept this as a routine task in the main.
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. I always 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.
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.
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.
Not recommended. Apart from the inherent dangers of attempting to burn the infestation, horsetails have a natural defense 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, this plant's reproductive cycle will continue unabated.
Not recommended. Mowing or slashing are ineffective methods of controlling this plant due to its rhizome system and deeply buried tubas. I have sometimes attempted to mow down these weeds from the cracks and joints in the patio in desperation. 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.
Not recommended. Another often-touted method that has some effect on the above-ground plant, at least for a short time. But once again, the root system remains unaffected, and this also has the added disadvantage that any overspill of bleach can stain the stone path.
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 affected by horsetail know, we will only know the long-term prognosis in the coming seasons.
Before and After: Attempt to Eradicate Horsetail Weeds Using WD40 Spray
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. As soon as they appear, the careful and systematic removal of new shoots 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?
A saying 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 horsetail's bright green stems 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 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 coexistence route.
Hopefully, whatever your choice, advanced 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.
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.