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Not So Wild About 'Wild Strawberry'

Q. My back yard is almost completely overrun with 'strawberry grass'. Hope you know what I mean because I don't know any other term for it. It's very shallow rooted and gets small strawberry-like growths in the spring and summer. Do you know an effective and safe way to get rid of it? The neighbor's yard is also overrun.
    ---Dru in Arlington, VA
My lawn has large patches of a weed I believe is called "wild strawberry." The grass is healthy, but every year the wild strawberry seems to encroach more; and half the lawn is now infested. Is there anything I can do to stop this weed?
    ---John in Malvern, PA
Wild strawberries have taken over a portion of our lawn and I would like to know if there is anything that can be done short of cutting up the sod and starting over. We've been trying to pull it out by hand but we know we aren't always getting all of the roots. Watering before pulling helps, but it's really slow going. What's your advice?
    ---Bob and Ruth in Dayton, Ohio
A. My 'advice' is to keep on keeping on! You're on the right track; and slow is the way to go!

Now, just to make sure we were all on the same page, I sent follow-up questions to these listeners—and others who have emailed with similar complaint—and the answers all point to the same weed, which I've always called 'wild strawberry'. It's a real 'under the radar' player. Although it is a member of the genus that includes real strawberries (Fragaria), you won't find much information about it anywhere. It's not listed in any of my weed reference books, and I couldn't even find it in most of my thousand page 'definitive' plant encyclopedias.

But I know it well. It's an almost impossibly long and skinny ground-hugging vine that produces pretty little white flowers every foot or so that later give way to what some sources call 'fruit'. But I wouldn't use that term to define the little round red button-shaped objects. I'm sure some wildlife must eat them, but the ones I've checked out have been hard and extremely unappetizing. I even tasted one after I learned they were definitely in the strawberry family and it was like chewing tree bark.

Now, don't confuse this little runner with edible wild strawberries. There are several different kinds of those wonderful little plants ('wood strawberries' have runners; 'alpine strawberries' are clumping plants), and all are delicious. After being discovered growing wild in European woodlands centuries ago, they were quickly transplanted into gardens.

I grow the alpine variety and treasure the small, perfumed, intensely flavored fruits. The plants are very well behaved, perennial and produce their little treats all spring, summer and fall. Our weedy namesake is, I suspect, an escaped ornamental ground cover, as it looks great trailing across bare soil. (A popular ground cover in the strawberry family called 'Pink Panda' has pretty much the same trailing habit and produces flowers that are pink instead of white.)

I actually use my 'weed' AS a ground cover. I rip it out of places I don't want it to be, but allow it to grow in between the ornamental beds out in front of my house, where it prevents erosion and produces pretty little white flowers at ground level all season long. (But it has never appeared in my back yard lawn, despite that turf getting very limited attention from me, and the 'weed' being ubiquitous in my neighborhood. Weird.)

Anyway, there's not a lot of surface area on this plant, so herbicides of any kind are going to be useless; there's just nothing for them to land on. That makes physical removal the answer. The weed's habit is to run across the ground until it finds a spot it likes and then send down a root system, from which more vines run; and as most of our lawn owners acknowledge, it is extremely easy to pull out of wet soil.

Before you attack it, however, do a little work to prevent new infestations. Surround the outskirts of the areas you want to keep 'strawberry-free' with deep edging. Leave two inches of the material above ground to prevent the weed from walking overtop it, and keep an eye on this Maginot line throughout the season.

Then mark off sections of the infested lawn and work small areas at a time; don't try and conquer this Rome in one day or you'll wind up cutting corners and have to do it all over again. Have a hose or watering can at the ready and feel your way along the vine until you get to a rooted section. Soak that area well with water, and then pull slooowwwlllyy and gently. You should see the tiniest of root hairs still attached when that big root comes up. Trash the collected vines; don't compost them.

Then, when you're theoretically finished, keep that lawn thick, strong and free of the bare spots that offer weedy opportunity. Overseed fescues and other clumping grasses at least every other year to compensate for their lack of lateral growth. (Overseed warm season lawns in the Spring; cool-season in the Fall.) Then never cut your lawn lower than the recommend height (a minimum of three inches for cool-season lawns), and this weed should forever be stuck on the outside looking in.

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