Dandelions are so colorful, so cheerful — even delicious and nutritious. Why, then, does our culture label them landscaping enemy No. 1?
Not everyone loathes dandelions. Youngsters love their simple gladness and puffballs of soft seeds. The rare adult never unlearns that feeling.
At least one grown-up gardening guru still loves the pretty golden invaders, and is gently spreading the word about their joy and benefits, as well as how easy it is to manage them without chemicals.
“Dandelions can be found in my backyard,” said Erika Johnson, coordinator of Washington State University Clark County Extension’s Master Gardener program. “They are most welcome! They are one the of the earliest seasonal sources of nectar for pollinators.”
In recent years, as we all try to lean greener, our status update regarding our relationship with dandelions seems to be morphing from “Divorced” to “It’s complicated.”
We’re all trained to admire — or even worship — the uniform green lawn. But why?
Gentle turf that’s perfect for strolling, playing and picnicking was a favorite status symbol of the 17th century European upper crust. Making surplus land into an luxurious outdoor carpet meant you had wealth to spare and leisure time to enjoy.
That mindset came to America and trickled down to the typical homeowner, who often feels obliged to make war on weeds, especially unruly dandelions. That costs money, labor and environmental health — all in the name of artificial, unsustainable uniformity.
It just doesn’t make sense, Johnson said.
“An immaculate, perfect, manicured lawn seems to continue to be the goal of many a homeowner despite the fact that (lawns) take a lot of investment in terms of maintenance, money and chemical inputs,” Johnson said in email.
Lawns “offer virtually nothing to wildlife, and trying to keep them free of weeds and looking ‘terrific’ often results in harm to wildlife and polluted rivers, lakes and streams,” Johnson said.
What’s a weed?
A plant earns the label “weed” when it’s so sneakily good at taking hold and reproducing, it comes to dominate the landscape.
Johnson said the markers of a weed are “the ability to colonize a bare spot quickly, rapid growth and very effective reproduction.”
Horticulturist and master gardener volunteer Eve Hanlin supplied a succinct definition in a recent Columbian story: “It’s a plant that came up where we didn’t want it.”
And plenty of people don’t want dandelions in their yards. Dandelions are common throughout Western Washington. But that doesn’t mean a scorched-earth policy is best. Understanding them can help us control them naturally, without resorting to harmful chemicals.
Dandelions are perennials, meaning they can live three or more years. (Annuals live one year and biennials live two. If you know a weed will die in a year or two, Johnson said, you might forget about eradicating it and simply focus on keeping it from spreading seeds.)
Unlike many other perennial weeds, dandelions don’t spread vegetatively, that is, by creeping along the ground like blackberry vines, or spreading underground by the root like Canada thistle.
Because they don’t do that, dandelions are termed “simple” perennials. To reproduce, all they’ve got is seeds on the breeze.
If you eschew herbicides but simply must be rid of the dandelions in your yard, pull out each individual dandelion plant completely, all the way down to the root. That’s called grubbing.
“Solitary new dandelion plants along fence rows, roadsides, flower beds, and in turfgrass should be grubbed out (removed by digging out the entire plant, taproot and all) before they produce seed,” says the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources website. “Monitor the area for several months to make sure that removal of the taproot was complete.”
Dandelions’ long, central taproot makes them notoriously tough to eradicate. Taproots can grow as long as a foot or more, and they’re good at snapping apart and regenerating from the remainders. That’s why you must get the whole plant, which is tricky.
“Removing dandelions by hand-pulling or hoeing is usually futile, unless done repeatedly over a long period of time, because of the deep taproot system of established plants,” according to the University of California.
Gardening experts recommend moistening the soil to loosen it before grubbing dandelions. Modern anti-dandelion tool technology has given us a range of weaponry: weed knives, steel claws, cobra-headed grabbers and grubbers on metal poles that come in handy if your back hates bending over.
Folk remedies for dandelions, like solutions of vinegar and/or soap, appear to kill the top of the plant but that’s all, according to many sources. The roots remain and will regrow.
They may be “most welcome” in her yard, but Johnson still mows dandelions down promptly enough to stop them spreading seeds.
“I don’t perform any sort of eradication for dandelions,” she said. “I use the integrated pest management technique known as ‘tolerance.’ ”
Integrated pest management is a fancy term for using the least toxic, most environmentally friendly approach to managing landscaping problems like weeds and diseases.
“Dandelions spread only by seed,” Johnson said. “You can leave them around only as long as they haven’t set seeds. Since I mow my dandelions before they can set seed, they don’t do much in terms of reproducing.”
If you can see their little yellow heads, it’s time to mow. If you can see their puffy seed balls, you’re too late. Carefully cut off and dispose of the puffballs before the seeds go flying. Then go after those roots with your steel claw.
The best way of warding off parachuting seeds and avoiding dandelion infestations is by maintaining a thick, robust, healthy lawn. Overseed in the fall to regrow bare patches where weeds can get a foothold. Fill in other bare spots with woody mulch that suppresses weeds.
Or, try putting down your steel blade and getting along with dandelions, which are actually good for your landscape, the whole environment and even for you.
- Dandelions loosen and enrich the soil. Those big taproots are excellent soil aerators, and help neighboring plants as they draw up nutrients from way down below.
- Insects love dandelions. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators doing nature’s daily work find them yummy. Amongst the ongoing cascade of terrible environmental news is a worldwide bee die-off that’s already affecting our flora and our food. Every little yellow bloom in your yard can help.
- People find them yummy too. The mild bitterness of dandelions can be cooked or sweetened away, or just enjoyed for its own sake. (But never eat dandelions that have been sprayed.)
Every single part of the dandelion is edible and nutritious. The flowers are full of cancer-fighting antioxidants and vitamins A and B12. The green leaves are packed with potassium, calcium and vitamins A and C.
The flowers can be made into tea, wine, pancakes, muffins and much more. The leaves can be tossed into salads or sauteed like spinach. Try frying some up with your morning eggs. The natural sodium in dandelion greens makes them a nice flavoring alternative to table salt. The not-too-flavorful roots can be boiled in stews and soups.
For endless ideas and suggestions, search “dandelion recipes” online. For an immediate dose of the good cheer that comes from combining healthy eating and natural weed control, go outside, grab the biggest dandelion clump in your yard and chow down.