The Battle Against Cattails. How Hard Are They to Remove?

What are cattails?

Cattails are tall, grass-like wetland plants that are often seen growing in dense stands along the edges of ponds, lakes, ditches, and slow-moving streams. They have long, strap-like leaves that can reach 1-2 inches wide and 3-10 feet tall. At the top of the stalks are cigar-shaped, brown flower spikes. The spikes turn fluffy and white as they mature, which gives cattails their distinct appearance.

Cattails spread aggressively through rhizomes – underground stems that creep along the soil surface or just below ground. They also reproduce rapidly through the tiny seeds that form on their flower spikes. Just one spike can produce hundreds of thousands of seeds every year. This enables cattails to quickly colonize open wet areas and form dense monocultures where few other plant species can thrive.

Cattails are very adaptable plants that grow across North America, from Alaska and Canada down to Mexico. They thrive in freshwater wetland areas like marshes, swamps, ditches, and pond edges that have shallow, slow-moving, or stagnant water.

Why remove cattails?

There are several reasons why you may want to remove cattails from your property:

Appearance – Some people consider cattails to be weeds and find their appearance unappealing, especially when they spread aggressively. Cattails can quickly take over ponds, lakeshores, and wet areas, crowding out other desirable plants.

Invasive – The common cattail is considered an invasive plant in many areas outside of its native range. It can spread prolifically and choke out native species. Removing cattails may help restore balance to a local ecosystem.

Mosquitoes – The dense growth of cattails provides an ideal habitat for mosquitoes to breed. Clearing cattails can remove mosquito breeding grounds and reduce populations around your property.

Spreading – If left unchecked, cattails will continue spreading through rhizomes and seeds, taking over their surroundings. Removing cattails can stop their encroachment and prevent a monoculture.

Safety – Areas with overgrown cattails can become fire hazards. Their dry leaves and litter can be flammable. Removing cattails creates a fire break.

Access – Dense stands of cattails can impede access to the water’s edge or block pathways. Removing them opens up areas for recreation and enjoyment.

Difficulty Removing Cattails

Cattails can sometimes be challenging to remove completely because of their extensive root systems. The difficulty depends on several factors:

  • Age of the cattail stand – Older, established cattail stands have large, deep rhizome root systems that spread out underground. These are much harder to fully remove.

  • Size of the cattail stand – Large, dense groups of cattails with interconnected root systems are more difficult to eliminate.

  • Soil conditions – Cattails thrive in moist soil. The looser and wetter the soil, the easier they pull out. Clay soils make manual removal more difficult.

  • Depth of water – Removing cattails growing in standing water is easier than removing those on drier land.

  • Time of year – Cattails are easiest to pull in early spring when the ground is wet and roots are smaller.

In general, the larger and older a cattail stand is, and the drier the surrounding soil, the more challenging complete removal will be. Their extensive rhizome root systems allow cattails to spread aggressively and re-sprout after removal attempts.

Manual removal techniques

Manually digging up, cutting, or pulling cattails is effective at removing them, but can be very labor intensive. Cattails have dense, fibrous rhizome root systems that extend horizontally through the soil, so you have to remove all the roots and rhizomes or else the plants will regrow. Here are some manual techniques:

Digging – Using a shovel or spade to dig under the plant, sever the roots, and lift it out. This gets under and removes the entire root system if done thoroughly. Digging out cattails is very hard work but highly effective.

Cutting – Using a sharp shovel, knife, or pruners to slice through the stalks at ground level or below. This is easier than digging but leaves the roots intact so regrowth is likely. To prevent regrowth, you must cut deep below the soil surface every time new shoots appear.

Pulling – Grasping the stalks and pulling firmly to uproot the plant. Pulling by hand is possible when plants are small or sparse. But established cattail stands have incredibly strong, tight roots that make pulling extremely difficult if not impossible.

Overall, manual removal demands significant physical effort. Digging is most thorough but requires diligently extracting every piece of root and rhizome, which is backbreaking work. Cutting is easier but must be repeated to control regrowth from any leftover roots. Pulling works for young sprouts but cannot extract developed root systems. Combining techniques maximizes effectiveness.

Tools to Help Remove Cattails

Manually pulling out cattails can be back-breaking work. Utilizing certain tools can make removing cattails much easier. Here are some of the most helpful tools for cattail removal:

Shovels – A sturdy shovel can help dig up and remove cattail roots more easily than pulling by hand. Use a rounded shovel to dig deep and lift out the entire root mass.

Weed wrenches – Weed wrenches utilize leverage to assist in removing tough roots. Place the claw over the plant stalk near ground level and pull up to disconnect the roots below.

Cutter mattocks – This ax-like tool has a sharpened blade on one side to chop through roots. The flat side can then pry up root balls.

Garden forks – Use a thick garden fork to loosen soil and break up root networks before pulling cattails.

Power augers – Gas-powered augers can drill into the ground around cattail roots, making removal easier.

Having the right tools for the job makes removing cattails much more manageable. Investing in a quality shovel, weed wrench, or other useful tool can save hours of effort over manual pulling.

Herbicide Use on Cattails

Herbicides can be an effective way to control cattails, but proper usage is important. The most commonly used herbicide for cattails is glyphosate, often sold under brand names like Roundup or Rodeo. Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide that will kill most plant life it comes into contact with, so it’s important to carefully target only the cattails you want to remove.

For best results, herbicide should be applied in late summer or early fall when cattails are actively growing and translocating nutrients to their rhizomes underground. This allows the herbicide to travel through the plant and kill the entire system. Cutting or mowing cattail stalks first can improve herbicide application and effectiveness. Using an aquatic formulation of glyphosate designed for wetlands is ideal.

Take safety precautions when using herbicides near water – wear protective equipment, minimize drift, and follow all label instructions carefully. Only apply herbicide if permitted in your area and avoid contaminating the water. Monitor treated areas for regrowth and do additional spot treatments as needed. Though effective, herbicide use does carry environmental risks and should be part of an integrated cattail management plan.

Other control methods

In addition to manual and chemical removal, there are some other techniques that can be used to control cattail growth:

  • Controlled burning – This involves carefully burning the cattails, which destroys the aboveground growth. The rhizomes underground may survive, so follow-up removal is often needed. Be sure to check local regulations first.

  • Flooding – Flooding an area with 12-36 inches of water for at least a month can help drown out cattails. This may not be feasible in all areas.

  • Grazing – Allowing animals like goats, sheep, or cattle to graze on cattails can help control growth. The animals need to be fenced or contained in the area.

These alternative control methods can be used in conjunction with manual and chemical removal techniques as part of an integrated cattail management plan. They may be less labor-intensive than manual removal alone. However, multiple control methods over time are usually needed to fully remove an established cattail infestation.

Replanting after removal

Once cattails are successfully removed, the affected area may need replanting to prevent the cattails or other invasive species from quickly re-establishing. Native plants are the best options for replanting, as they are adapted to the local soil and climate conditions. Choose native species that suit the specific conditions of the site, such as depth and duration of flooding or soil moisture.

Some good native plants for replanting areas previously overrun by cattails include:

  • Sedges
  • Rushes
  • Flowering aquatic plants like pickerelweed or arrowheads
  • Grasses like big bluestem, switchgrass or prairie cordgrass
  • Wildflowers such as coneflowers, cardinal flower, ironweed, and blue vervain

Focus on planting a diversity of species to recreate a balanced, resilient native plant community. This will help prevent any single species from becoming dominant again. Make sure to give the new plantings adequate moisture and sun exposure for establishment. With the right replanting and follow-up maintenance, the area can return to a healthy native habitat after removing invasive cattails.

Preventing Regrowth

Here are some tips for preventing cattails from returning after you’ve removed them:

  • Plant native aquatic plants – Introducing native species that are adapted to the wetland environment makes it harder for cattails to establish themselves again.
  • Address drainage issues – Improving drainage can make the area less hospitable to cattails. Install drainage tiles, dig drainage ditches, or build up the land to prevent standing water.
  • Apply herbicide to regrowth – Spot treat any new cattail shoots with a systemic aquatic herbicide to prevent them from spreading.
  • Mow or weed whack regularly – Frequent mowing or weed whacking of any regrowth will help deplete the plant’s energy stores and prevent it from taking over.
  • Use landscape fabric – Laying down a permeable landscape fabric after removal can block sunlight and make it harder for cattails to regrow.
  • Introduce competition – Planting dense native grasses and flowering plants creates competition for resources like nutrients, water, and sunlight.

With persistence and repeated management efforts, you can keep cattails at bay after removing them initially.

Professional cattail removal

If you have a large infestation of cattails or find DIY removal too difficult, you may want to hire a professional removal service. Companies that offer aquatic weed control can effectively eliminate cattails from your property.

A professional will have industrial strength herbicides that provide more thorough control than consumer products. They also have specialized equipment to inject or spray the herbicide directly onto the cattails. This precision application prevents damage to surrounding plants.

Professionals can remove dense stands of established cattails more efficiently than manual labor. Their powerful machines can mow, dredge, or mulch away cattail growth. Some offer guarantees against cattail regrowth for 1-3 years.

Hiring professional cattail removal costs $100-$300 per hour on average. Most jobs take 2-3 hours for an area of 2,000-5,000 sq ft. The total ranges from $300-$900 depending on the infestation size and access difficulties. Additional services like hauling away debris or revegetation add to the overall cost.

To find a qualified service, search for “aquatic weed control” or “wetland restoration” companies. Meet with them to evaluate your cattail problem and get an accurate estimate. Make sure they are licensed pesticide applicators when herbicides are used. With professional help, you can efficiently remove unwanted cattail growth from your property.

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