Weeds Of High Prairie

Joe Walsh*

Gardeners will tell you that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. But in Klickitat County—and throughout the rural west—there are a lot of weeds that are more than that: the invasives. Following is a short, general summary of a big and complicated problem.

The invasive and noxious weeds are more than annoying; they invade and degrade our natural habitats and cause problems for agriculture. A lot of them originate on the steppe of Eurasia and find our dry side conditions ideal.

Invasive weeds are non-native and such strong competitors that they can establish on many sites, grow quickly, and spread to the point of disrupting plant communities and ecosystems. Some prominent invasives in our area are weedy grasses that threaten to crowd out our wildflowers and other native plants – cereal rye, cheatgrass and ripgut brome are just a few. Cheatgrass is also increasing fire danger on our dry side grasslands, as it dies off much earlier in the season than the natives.

State law and county ordinance designate noxious weeds. These are the most aggressive and damaging of the invasives. Listing as a noxious weed means that landowners are required to control that weed on their property, or be assessed if the County has to take control measures. Here’s a brief portrait of three of our worst offenders.

Skeleton Weed – once you recognize this strange looking plant, it’s unforgettable. It’s more and more a common sight in High Prairie. Without control measures, a few of these pests will turn into a colony.

Knapweed is another gangly invader. There are several varieties out there, but they are all very aggressive and can take over quickly. Their deep taproot allows them to survive tough conditions over many years. Some knapweeds secrete a chemical that zaps competing plants.

Houndstongue is not yet well established in High Prairie, and we should hope it stays that way. This 3 foot tall biennial crowds out everything else, and sends out hundreds of seeds in aggravating velcro balls.

Who’s On The Job? 

Control of noxious weeds has been the law in Washington for fifty years. Locally, Marty Hudson has been in charge of weed control in the County for almost thirty years. His efforts are spread across the roads and the public and private lands of the almost 2000 square miles of Klickitat County. Marty works directly with agencies and landowners and prefers to focus on education and prevention.

Marty notes that there have been big changes in High Prairie over the last decades as the acres of grazed and tilled land have declined and the number of rural homesteads has increased greatly. This presents a challenge in the increasing number of owners and the soil disturbance from new homesites, roads and driveways. 

What Can I Do?

The best plan is to not let problem weeds get established – they’re fierce competitors, and once established it’s tough to get rid of them. Prevention, early detection and removal are critical. Prevention plans include minimizing ground disturbance for building and access projects. Once the ground is disturbed, reseed as quickly as possible with a dry pasture mix (available at the Goldendale outlet of MidColumbia Growers). 

If you have invasive or, especially, noxious weeds, it’s time to pull, dig, or spray – preferably early in the season before the seeds are dispersed. Pulling and digging are satisfying but require dedication as a lot of weeds spread by rhizomes (underground stems) that can survive for long periods. And once weeds have been around for a while, there will be a “seed bank” in the soil with 4, 5 or even more years of viability. Unfortunately, it’s usually not a one-and-done effort, but requires ongoing effort.

If you decide to spray, choose the herbicide carefully – products like Roundup are non-selective, meaning they kill everything, possibly opening the area to more weeds. Selective herbicides target more narrowly, and usually don’t affect grasses, but are typically more expensive up front, and don’t come pre-mixed. If you do spray, follow directions carefully, make sure there’s no wind (a tall order up here) and don’t let spray drift to sensitive areas or adjoining properties.

The experts say that a combination of measures, – prevention, removal, spraying if  necessary, plus managing for desirable plants is required over the long run.

More Information

High Prairians can find Klickitat County’s programs, including contact information for Marty Hudson, at https://www.klickitatcounty.org/562/Weed-Control. There is a wealth of information on local weeds and their control, even apps for your phone and social media. The state of Washington has an extensive website on the subject. View the “most  wanted” offenders, and even get noxious weed postcards at https://www.nwcb.wa.gov/publications

A good summary comes from Carolyn Wright, the botanist at the Columbia Hills Natural Area (aka Stacker Butte). She says “A quick synopsis might be that weeds displace natives, often resulting in a less diverse plant community which in turn can affect the animal community, beginning with pollinators and other insects, various herbivores and in turn birds, reptiles and so on.“ 

*“The author grew up in farm country and hates thistles”

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