(Plantago species) Plantains are perennial weeds that will grow in most parts of the garden, although they are usually more of a problem when they become established in the lawn
What are plantains?
Plantains are perennial weeds that grow in just about any part of the garden. They usually become more of a problem when they establish in the lawn – their low rosettes of leaves covering and smothering the surrounding grass, causing bare patches.
There are several species of plantains, but the ones most commonly found in gardens are the greater, or broad-leaved, plantain (Plantago major) and the ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata).
These evergreen weeds remain throughout the year and each plant is capable of producing thousands of seeds. These can remain dormant in the ground for several years. And as “One year’s seeding means seven years weeding”, allowing plants to flower and produce seeds, means several years of trying to control and remove it.
Plantain seeds germinate and plants grow particularly well in both compacted and disturbed or cultivated soil.
Where do they grow?
- Waste or uncultivated ground
Plantains are evergreen perennial plants, producing rosettes of deep or medium green leaves, with deep or conspicuous veins. Mature plants can measure from 15-30cm (6-12in) in diameter. The leaves of broad-leaved plantains spread outwards and are broadly oval in shape, up to 20cm (8in) long. Those of the ribwort plantain are lanceolate, or spear-shaped, and either spreading outwards or growing upright.
The small flowers are produced in a dense spike at the top of tall flowering stems from April/May to September. Plants can produce thousands of seeds, helping to spread it further afield.
How to control plantains
As with most perennial weeds, don’t allow plantains to become established, and certainly don’t allow them to flower and produce seeds. This will make it more difficult, and more time consuming, to fully control. Early identification and eradication is important to stop them taking over the garden.
Digging out the plants is a relatively quick – although not necessarily easy – way of getting rid of plantains. A fork and hand fork are usually better tools than a spade and trowel.
Regularly hoeing seedlings and young plants as soon as you see them is the quickest and easiest method of control. The aim of hoeing is to sever the weed stems at or just below ground level, cutting the top growth from its roots. A sharp hoe blade will make this even quicker and easier, so always sharpen the hoe blade before using it. Hoeing on a warm and/or windy day will mean plants quickly dehydrate and die.
Digging out the plants when they are more established is more time consuming and more difficult – especially where they’re growing among wanted plants.
Flame guns and weeders that use an electric current are also effective in some locations.
Covering bare soil with weed-control membrane (landscape fabric) or even thick black polythene will exclude light and prevent seeds germinating. As will mulching the soil with organic matter, such as a bark mulch. For mulches to work properly, they need to be a minimum of 5cm (2in) thick, but 7.5cm (3in) deep works better.
In lawns, plantains will need digging out before they start spreading, and smothering and killing the surrounding grass.
There are a number of weed control options available to treat plantains. In addition to traditional weedkillers there are now also a range of more natural alternatives.
Any weedkiller can be used to control and kill plantains in beds, borders, waste ground and on paths. Those marketed as “fast acting” are contact weedkillers – killing or damaging the plant tissue they are sprayed onto or make contact with. These tend to be based on “naturally-occurring” active ingredients, such as acetic acid and natural fatty acids.
Systemic weedkillers that also kill the roots can also be used.
To ensure the weedkiller works effectively:
- Spray the leaves when the plantains are growing actively; this is mainly from March/April to September/October. Contact weedkillers will have some effect if used during the colder weather in winter.
- The larger the leaf area present, the greater the amount of weedkiller that can be absorbed. So don’t bother spraying when the growth first emerges through the soil – wait until the leaves grow larger.
- Use a fine spray to thoroughly coat the leaves in small droplets.
- During the summer, spray in the evening to prevent the spray evaporating and to give maximum time for the spray to be absorbed. In spring or if overnight dew is forecast, spray earlier in the day to allow the spray to dry before dew falls.
Most contact weedkillers are total weedkillers – that is they will damage or kill any plants whose leaves they are sprayed on. Make sure you keep the spray off wanted plants – including lawns – and, if necessary protect plants by covering with polythene or similar when spraying.
Gel products, which are dabbed onto, and sticks to, the weed leaves, may be a better option when trying to treat plantains growing close to wanted plants, where drift of the spray would damage them.
In lawns, spray plants with a good lawn weedkiller. Make sure the lawn is well fed and not cut too short to help the grass out-compete plantains and other lawn weeds.
Use weedkillers safely. Always read the label and product information before use.
Don’t allow plants to flower and set seed. Although this is pretty easy in your garden, it’s more difficult to stop the seeds blowing in from a neighbour’s garden, any surrounding fields and waste ground and even further afield.
- Hand fork
- Weeding tools
- Weed-control membrane
- Lawn weed extraction tools
- Lawn weedkillers