Crabgrass has a culinary history

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By Jeneen Wiche

Summertime is the time when crabgrass rears its ugly head and begins to creep through our fescue lawns, sneak into our cultivated beds and, when we’re not looking, reseeds itself to ensure the continuation of the species. Does it sound daunting? Well, I wouldn’t look at it that way entirely; let’s just say it is a challenge to keep it under control. 
Since crabgrass is an annual grass it is all about seed. Pre-emergents like corn gluten in the early spring will certainly help but what many people neglect to do is reapply the control every 6 weeks. Pre-emergents prevent seed from germinating but the active ingredient only remains viable in the soil for about 4 to 6 weeks.  And, if it is a rainy season like this year, the efficacy is diminished further.
A little elbow grease goes a long way, too.  When you see a clump of the light green blades begin to creep through the fescue pull it up.  With all the moisture in the soil (for most of us) you will find it quite easy to “weed” small patches of crabgrass. Gingerly pull the creeping blades that have developed roots out of their entanglement with your fescue.  Once you have loosened these you can better grip the main, center roots and pull it right out.   Reseeding of bare areas after the crabgrass is removed can be done now. To deter further crabgrass seed to soil contact, maintain a higher mower height; and if you fertilize your lawn only do so in the fall.
You may be quite surprised at the history of crabgrass and how it was first introduced in the United States.  Actually, it came across the ocean with immigrants from Europe who had cultivated crabgrass for the seed.  Crabgrass seed was used like millet, a common ingredient in porridges and breads.  When its use in the kitchen declined due to the more efficient crops of corn and wheat (it took 100,000 crabgrass seeds to make a pound) crabgrass was used as cattle fodder.  As the native summer fodder browned out, the green crabgrass proved appealing to cattle.  Our sheep happily eat it and in droughty years we welcome its summer growth as the fescue goes dormant.
Crabgrass declined in use as fodder by the turn of the century but the invasive grass had already planted its seed.   In a relatively short period of time, crabgrass spread throughout the entire United States.  Once we started to have manicured lawns crabgrass really went crazy.  It was more noticeable, for one thing, but more than anything else the fact that we were mowing our lawns short meant that the crabgrass seed could make contact with the soil at a much higher percentage (that’s one of the reasons why you should not mow shorter than 2 ½ inches).  Yet another lesson in how human activity can change the environment of a continent! 
 If you are thinking about doing some lawn renovation now is a good time to get it done.  The ideal scenario is to get a good stand of grass (that has been mowed a time or two) established before winter sets in.  Keep any seed moist until germination takes place; once the seedlings are set water every few days and forgo any fertilization until next season.  Water will be key to establishing the grass so if Mother Nature does not deliver pull out the hoses.