Weeds of Early Spring

With warmer weather comes plant growth. The most conspicuous plants in the lawn and landscape right now are winter annuals such as hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), and chickweeds (Stellaria media and Cerastium fontanum ssp. vulgare), to name a few. In lawns, these winter annuals are typically found in areas where the lawn was thin in September and October when these weeds germinated. Most winter annuals do not establish readily where the lawn canopy is dense. In ornamental beds they can be prolific unless the beds were recently mulched (which buries the seed), as there is plenty of open space and little competition from other plants.

Henbit flowering

Purple deadnettle flowering in early spring

Common chickweed in an ornamental bed

In the lawn, these winter annual broadleaf species can be easily controlled by herbicides that contain 2,4-D, MCPA, mecoprop, or dicamba. But keep in mind that these winter annual weeds are near the end of their life cycle and will be dead within 3 to 4 weeks even if no herbicide is applied. Exceptions include mouseear chickweed (Cerastium fontanum ssp. vulgare) and corn speedwell (Veronica arvensis) which can persist farther into the summer.

Corn speedwell in an ornamental bed

Perennials such as wild garlic (Allium vineale), star-of-bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), and lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) are also noticeable this time of year. They are ephemerals that will return to dormancy within the next few weeks where they reside as bulbs for the summer, emerging again in late fall or mid-winter.

Star-of-bethlehem. Notice the white midrib on the leaf.


Star-of-bethlehem in a lawn


Lesser celendine in a lawn

Another ephemeral winter perennial is bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa). This also emerges from bulbs in late fall and is dormant all summer. It is most conspicuous when in mid spring it produces what looks like an inflorescence, but is actually a collection of bulbils (small bulbs) and not flowers. Bulbous bluegrass is occasionally widespread in extremely low input lawns, but is more commonly found in small patches where disturbance and competition from other plants is low. I commonly see this at the base of tree trunks or between the sidewalk and road.

Bulbous bluegrass bulbils. Photo courtesy of Aaron Patton.

Bulbous bluegrass bulbs and leaves

Roughstalk bluegrass (Poa trivialis) is a perennial grass that is obvious this time of year due to rapid growth and light green color. There are no selective herbicide options for roughstalk bluegrass control. Except in wet and shaded areas where it is well-suited, roughstalk bluegrass growth tends to slow by late spring and it goes dormant in summer. If it is mixed well with other turfgrass species, this slow decline to dormancy is not noticeable. For more information about roughstalk bluegrass, see this recent blog.

Patches of roughstalk bluegrass in a lawn.

While winter annuals are nearing the end of their life cycle, summer annual weeds are just getting started. Japanese stiltgrass emergence (discussed in a recent blog) has been noted in several locations in central and southern NJ. It may be too late for preemergent herbicides to control stiltgrass. For more information on stiltgrass control, see this RCE factsheet.

Forsythia in full bloom

Soil temperatures and Forsythia full bloom we are now seeing suggests crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) emergence will begin within two to three weeks. Now is a good time to begin making preemergence herbicide applications. Based on what we know about crabgrass and other summer annual species, the mild winter is not likely to accelerate germination, since the seed is not active until soil temperatures are in the 50s. Other than using Forsythia spp. full bloom as an indicator, soil temperatures can be monitored, but the science doesn’t provide precise guidance on this. But as a general rule, once soil temperature consistently exceeds 55 °F at a 2” depth for at least few days, crabgrass seed germinates and emergence is often noted a few days later. Live soil temperatures can be found on the Rutgers NJ Weather Network. The 24-hr rolling average at locations we monitor in North Brunswick, NJ is between 48 and 54 degrees F, depending on sun exposure. See these links for more information on crabgrass control in the lawn for professionals, and homeowners.

Japanese Stiltgrass Control in Turf

Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is a C4 summer annual grassy weed commonly invasive to forests. It can be problematic in lawns. Often it is problematic in shaded areas adjacent to an infested forest. But we have observed infestations in full sun turfgrass areas where you would normally expect crabgrass to be the predominant summer annual. It seems this weed is becoming increasingly problematic in lawns. But why I am I writing about a summer weed in February?

Japanese stiltgrass in a lawn during late summer.

Japanese stiltgrass is the first summer annual grassy weed to emerge. Preemergence herbicides commonly used to control the summer annual crabgrass (dithiopyr, prodiamine, and pendimethalin) were effective for Japanese stiltgrass control in our research. However, stiltgrass emerges sooner than crabgrass and these preemergence herbicides are only effective when applied before stiltgrass emergence. In our 2022 research we applied these preemergence herbicides on March 11, 2022 in Pittstown, NJ. Stiltgrass typically emerges in March, often about a month before crabgrass. Germination of the seed and subsequent emergence is probably highly variable from year to year and depends on soil surface temperatures. Do not expect seedlings to be killed by frost. While Forsythia full bloom can be used as an indicator to apply crabgrass preemergence herbicides, there is no information available regarding soil temperatures or phenological indicators for stiltgrass emergence.

Japanese stiltgrass seedlings emerged in tall fescue turf in March

Our research found that while preemergence herbicides applied before stiltgrass emergence (in early March) were effective, those same treatments applied around crabgrass emergence in early May were not effective. A mixture of the postemergence herbicide Acclaim Extra (9 fl oz/A) and a preemergence herbicide was effective for stiltgrass control when applied in early May at crabgrass emergence. For stiltgrass control in June, July, and August, higher rates of Acclaim herbicide will be necessary for control. Acclaim Extra is the only product registered for postemergence stiltgrass control in turfgrass. Field research found it to be the most effective control option. See this RCE factsheet for more information about Japanese stiltgrass identification and other control options in non-turf areas.


In summary, to control Japanese stiltgrass, preemergence herbicides need to be applied a month earlier than is typical. If this is not feasible, tank-mixing preemergence herbicide with low rates of Acclaim Extra is an effective option.

Tropical Storm Brings Rain But What About Gray Leaf Spot?

The passing of tropical storm, Fay brought some needed precipitation to the region, albeit too much at once in many places. Relatively dry soils (assumes not being over-irrigated) and the long, warm days of summer should allow turfs to dry out reasonably fast.

But what about gray leaf spot? Spores of the pathogen are thought to be blown up from southern regions to the north on the winds of tropical systems. With the recent passing of Fay, Dr. Bruce Clarke recommends being on the watch for early symptoms and signs of gray leaf spot outbreaks. Gray leaf spot can be severe on older, non-tolerant cultivars of perennial ryegrass while new, improved cultivars will be much less sensitive although not immune. Over the last couple years, we have also experienced some strong outbreaks of gray leaf spot on tall fescue across the region. So don’t ignore the tall fescue turfs if you have some.

For more information, see the fact sheet, Integrated Control of Gray Leaf Spot on Perennial Ryegrass.

Gray leaf spot control with fungicides on perennial ryegrass.

Fungicide plots on a perennial ryegrass cultivar that is highly susceptible to gray leaf spot.

Green-up Started

Soil temperatures have been warming and reached the mid-40s °F last week at Rutgers Hort Farm No. 2 in North Brunswick NJ and are creeping into the upper-40s °F early this week. Dr. Clarke recommends that treatment of turf with a history of take-all patch be initiated when soil temperature averages 40 to 60 °F. Treatment of fairy ring should be initiated when average temperature is in the range of 50 to 55 °F. Waiting to treat beyond these soil temperature thresholds will increase the risk that control strategies are not as effective.

Table 1. Soil Temperature Data under Bentgrass Turf Mowed at 0.375-inch in North Brunswick, NJ on 17 March 2020 at 2:00 PM.

3-inch Depth Thatch-Soil Interface
Current 48 °F 50 °F
24-hour Average 45 °F 44 °F
5-day Average 47 °F 47 °F


Additionally, the Forsythia bloom started last week in central New Jersey, which Dr. Matthew Elmore recommends as a traditional phenological indicator for preemergence herbicide programs on turf.

Initial forsythia bloom in a home lawn in central NJ last week.


Glyphosate Alternatives

Recent news about glyphosate has many thinking about alternatives.

Joe Neal (Professor of Weed Science, Extension Specialist & Department Extension Leader Horticultural Science) and Andrew Senesac (Extension Weed Scientist Cornell Cooperative Extension, Suffolk Co., NY) have published a thorough summary of alternatives and the associated pros and cons through NC State Extension at https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/are-there-alternatives-to-glyphosate-for-weed-control-in-landscapes

Green-up Transitioning to Growth: Ready to Mow?

Three weeks ago, many turfgrasses began greening up as surface soil temperatures warmed into the 50s °F during the day. Currently, surface soil temperatures are reaching into the 60s °F during the day, which stimulates vertical leaf growth especially after a rain. Any early spring N fertilization will also encourage vertical leaf growth.

Accordingly, mowing equipment should be reconditioned and ready for routine use. Setup of mowing height should not be overlooked; an incorrect mowing height will lead to problems. Generally, lawn grasses will be easier to maintained at a mowing height of 3-inches or higher.

Grasses will be healthier when there are more leaves (leaf area) to capture sunlight for photosynthesis and shade the soil surface. More photosynthesis helps the grass grow more roots and a shaded soil surface remains cooler. Shade also blocks the exposure of weed seed to light, which is an environmental trigger for weed germination.

Uneven ground is another reason to recommend relatively high mowing. Many lawns are relatively uneven. A lack of smoothness in a lawn contributes to poor mowing.  A mower set 3-inches helps protect high spots in a lawn from being severely scalped. For example, a high spot in a lawn that ends up being cut at 2-inches with a mower set at 3-inches would be cut at 1-inch if the mower were set at 2-inches.

Mower scalp caused by mower deck being set too low on a lawn with uneven ground.


Roughstalk bluegrass

Roughstalk bluegrass (Poa trivialis) is a cool-season perennial grass often considered a weed. Light green in color it is most obvious in the early spring when it grows more rapidly than other turfgrasses. As temperatures rise in the summer its growth will slow and it often goes semi-dormant until cooler temperatures and rainfall return in the autumn.

A roughstalk bluegrass plant in a lawn in spring.

A small roughstalk bluegrass plant with purple stems.

Infestations usually begin as small plants, but over time these plants spread via stolons and form patches that don’t tend to mix well with other cool-season grasses. These patches form as small plants expand from stoloniferous growth. These stolons (in addition to the lighter green color) can be used to differentiate roughstalk bluegrass from other bluegrasses such as annual bluegrass (no stolons or rhizomes) and Kentucky bluegrass (rhizomes only). Unlike Kentucky bluegrass, roughstalk bluegrass also has a long membranous ligule with a pointed tip.

Patch of roughstalk bluegrass in a lawn.

Patches of lighter green roughstalk bluegrass amongst Kentucky bluegrass

Currently there are no selective herbicides you can use in a home lawn to control roughstalk bluegrass. For many years Velocity herbicide was an option for professional turf managers, but it is no longer being manufactured and is not registered for use in home lawns (golf courses and sod farms only). Xonerate herbicide can provide some suppression, but should be used carefully to prevent injury to desirable turfgrass.

To control roughstalk bluegrass in cool-season lawns and athletic fields, nonselective control with glyphosate (Roundup and others) followed by reseeding is the best option. Apply glyphosate at this time in early spring, before summer stress, for best control. Glyphosate will kill any plant the spray contacts so apply carefully. If the areas are small, consider removing them with a shovel or a sod cutter. Be sure to remove the patch and at least 12 inches of turf surrounding the patch. Removing soil to a 0.5-inch depth should be sufficient to remove the stolons and all growing points. Reseed or sod the area with a desirable turfgrass species after removal.

These recommendations are based off of the 2019 Turfgrass Weed Control for Professionals guide. I highly recommend this guide for professionals managing cool-season turfgrass.

Weed Control in Spring Seedings

The recent warm weather means its time to started on lawn and landscape projects. You may have plans to seed bare spots in the lawn that you didn’t get to in the autumn. These bare spots may be the result of fungal diseases, which were aplenty due to heavy rainfall in 2018. Summer annual weeds such as crabgrass or Japanese stiltgrass can out compete desirable species in the summertime and leave bare areas as well. While autumn is the ideal time to seed lawns in New Jersey, spring seedings can be successful if you have a plan to control summer annual weeds.

Crabgrass in a lawn


Weed competition from summer annual weeds is much more intense and is the main reason spring seedings are unsuccessful. In a mature lawn, you can apply a pre-emergence herbicide (crabgrass preventer) to manage weeds such as crabgrass and stiltgrass. If you recently seeded or have plans to, these crabgrass preventers are not an option.

If you are planning to seed this spring, using a starter fertilizer product that also contains the active ingredient mesotrione is an effective option when applied at seeding. It will control weed seedlings as they emerge without harming the grass you’ve seeded. One product for home lawns that contains mesotrione is Scotts® Turf Builder® Starter® Food for New Grass Plus Weed Preventer. Mesotrione is available for professional applicators as Tenacity® and other trade names. Products that contain siduron (Tupersan) are also an option for crabgrass control at seeding. Mesotrione and tupersan are not as effective as other pre-emergent herbicides such as pendimethalin, dithiopyr, and prodiamine that can be used on mature, well-established lawns.

After mesotrione is applied, weed seedlings and sometimes the turfgrass will appear bleached for 7 to 21 days after the application. The turfgrass will recover but most of the weed seedlings will not. Read the label carefully especially when using mesotrione and seeding fine fescue. Do not over apply mesotrione as it can damage grass you’ve seeded, especially perennial ryegrass. In areas of heavy weed pressure, mesotrione and siduron will likely not provide season-long crabgrass control. A second mesotrione application can be made 4-6 weeks after the initial or post-emergence herbicides that conitain quinclorac or fenoxaprop are also options if crabgrass develops mid-summer. Sprayable products sold for crabgrass control usually contain quinclorac or fenoxaprop.

Soil Health

Soil that has been severely compacted often breaks into large massive plates.

For those interested in soil health – we all should be – the Soil Health Institute has release a 60-minute documentary featuring innovative farmers and soil health experts from throughout the U.S.

You can view the film at https://livingsoilfilm.com/


Dog Days and Cool-Season Grass


Cool-season lawn struggling to grow in shallow soil on a south-facing slope during dog days.

According to Merriam-Webster, dog days is the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere; a period of stagnation or inactivity.

The dog is actually the Dog Star – also called Sirius – which rises simultaneously with the sun during the hottest days of summer in the northern hemisphere. Plutarch (Greek writer, 46-120 AD) referred to the hot days of summer as hēmerai kynades (literally, “dog days”); the Latin translation dies caniculares is the source of our English phrase. But I digress…

You most likely have noticed that cool-season grasses have recently entered a period of stagnation or inactivity (dog days) and, in some cases, are spent. The hot summer days have steadily increased soil temperatures to the point that the soil is now warmer than air temperature for much of the daylight hours and all of the night. During the last 10 days at Hort Farm No. 2, soil temperature at 3-inches has oscillated between 76 and 90 °F and at 2-inches 78 and 92 °F. These soil temperatures are well above the optimum temperatures for root growth and clearly explain why cool-season grasses are lethargic at this time.

What to do? Be patient and do not “push” the grass. This is not the time of year to stress out turf – the grass has very little resiliency and will not tolerate much abuse or recovery quickly. I recently witnessed utility vehicle traffic on subtly drought stressed turf during the hottest part of the day result in classic tire-track damage. Root systems of cool-season grasses are weakest and shallowest at this time of year. Thus, localized drought stress can develop rapidly – within a couple hot, sunny days – during the dog days.

These cultural practices can be helpful in getting high value turf to survive dog days. Once the turf has drained after drenching thunderstorms (2-3 days), program daily, very-light (50-65% of reference ET), deficit irrigation using a rainhold setting (such as 0.2-inch rain) to stop irrigation from adding to over-wetting from storms. Deficit irrigation assures that thunderstorms will be the reason for excess wetness, not the irrigation schedule. This irrigation plan should encourage the turf the dry without over-drying between irrigations (or thunderstorms). If excess drying does occur with this irrigation plan, it probably will start in highly localized (small) areas, which can be effectively managed with well-timed syringing to re-hydrate dry leaves and prevent crispy thatch during the heat of the day. Crispy thatch means that surface adventitious roots either are or will soon be crispy as well. Moist to dry thatch is good, whereas crispy and crunchy thatch in the heat is bad. Weekly, low-rate fertilization (N and possibly P, K and micronutrients) is crucial on sand-topdressed and sand-based rootzones commonly found on golf course putting greens and some sports turfs. These rootzones have very little mineralization capacity to supply essential nutrients during dog days. Weekly low-rate fertilization provides a steady, consistent slow-growth and avoids the “surge-crash” cycle of growth that results from less-frequent and higher application rates. Typically, low-rate N is no more than a 0.1-lbs. per 1,000-sq. ft.