Cheatgrass, a winter annual plant, has started its next life cycle. Depending on where you live, cheatgrass seeds have likely germinated in recent weeks or will be in the near future. Newly germinated sprouts overwinter as a small tuft of green leaves and start actively growing again early in the spring when they are often joined by even more plants from newly germinated seed. These plants mature and produce a new crop of seeds in late spring which will then germinate next fall starting the cycle over again.
Come summer when mature plants dry out cheatgrass becomes a significant wildfire fuel. Dry cheatgrass ignites easily, burns rapidly and can spread wildfire to other vegetation. Nevadans living, working, or recreating in locations where cheatgrass thrives should learn to identify it, take care not to ignite it and remove it from their properties.
Mature cheatgrass can be several inches to more than 18 inches tall. Typically, it has a nodding seed head that resembles a shepherd’s crook. There is often a tinge of red or purple in the green leaves during the spring. However, they quickly dry out and turn reddish-brown and eventually straw color as summer arrives. The seeds are notorious for adherring to socks and dogs’ ears.
Dry cheatgrass is probably the most easily ignitable vegetation on Nevada’s rangelands. Flames can erupt in cheatgrass from discarded lit cigarettes, welding activities, ricocheting bullets, catalytic converters on vehicles, fireworks and lightning. During years of above-average precipitation, a tremendous amount of cheatgrass can be present during fire season. Fire burning through cheatgrass on a windy day can produce flames in excess of 8 feet and travel 4½ mph. Dry cheatgrass can also serve as the kindling necessary to ignite hotter burning plants such as big sagebrush and pinyon pine, creating more intense wildfires.
Be careful when using areas dominated by cheatgrass during the summer and early fall months. You should:
- Always have water and a shovel nearby
- Do not park your vehicle over dry cheatgrass
- Properly dispose of cigarettes and matches
- Instruct your children not to play with matches or fireworks
- Have a cell phone available to report fires
A dense stand of cheatgrass growing near your home is a fire hazard and should be removed. Cheatgrass should be eliminated from at least the first 30 feet extending from your house and other buildings, preferably before it dries out. Use a lawn mower with a mulching blade or cut it with a weed eater, rake it up and remove it. If cutting when dry, have a connected hose with a spray nozzle attached nearby in case there’s an accidental fire start.
Long term control strategies of cheatgrass include:
- Kill existing live cheatgrass plants
- Prevent new cheatgrass plants from producing any seeds
- Prevent seed germination and seedling growth from cheatgrass seeds already in the soil
- Reseed cheatgrass control areas with desirable vegetation
The cheatgrass control methods available to homeowners include: mechanical (e.g., mowing), biological (e.g., grazing by animals), and herbicides. For more detailed information about cheatgrass identification and control, contact your local Cooperative Extension or go to: www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ho/2005/fs0529.pdf.
Ed Smith is a natural resource specialist with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. For information about gardening and landscaping to reduce fire threat, contact a master gardener at 775-336-0265 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.growyourownnevada.com. For information on drought, visit www.livingwithdrought.com.