Dandelion Wars

How could a flower make us so mad?

When I was a child I loved dandelions like all children do. Bright, cheerful and easily accessible, I gathered them in handfuls to make bouquets for my mom, princess crowns for myself, or decorations for the dog. Truth be told, I still think there are few sights more uplifting than a hillside covered in bright yellow dandelions, announcing to the world that summer has arrived. Now, however, I look out into my yard covered in dandelions and instead of seeing beauty, I see a hundred little signs that I have failed.

How could one little flower cause such consternation? True, they are not native to North America, but then again, neither is the Kentucky bluegrass growing in millions of lawns across the country. Though they seem to spread through turf grass with ease, they pose little threat to native habitat and can usually only be found along the edges of woods and prairies near roads and trails. Furthermore, dandelions have many virtues. Their leaves, delicious in salads if you harvest them while they’re still young, are rich in vitamins A, C and K, as well as calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. The flowers are edible too. When I worked as a naturalist, we used to collect dandelion flowers by the basket, dip them in pancake batter, deep fry, and then sprinkle them with powdered sugar as a fun treat for the kids. (As Minnesota State Fair has taught us, anything tastes good deep fried.) Even the roots can be roasted, ground and turned into coffee. Then again, if lettuce were spontaneously sprouting up all over in my lawn, I don’t think I would like it any better.

A perfect, weed free lawn is an indication of someone that cares about their home and their neighborhood, whereas a lawn covered in dandelions seems to say, “This person just doesn’t care.” I’ll never forget a man I met last year who, without a hint of irony, referred to an area of his upscale Woodbury neighborhood as a ghetto, saying “Dandelions everywhere – they don’t even try to get rid of them.” His words echo in my head as I sit in the front yard furiously digging up weeds and despite my labor to plant new gardens and fence off shrubs to protect them from rabbits, all that matters are these ugly yellow heads rearing up to tell the world that I’ve failed to take care of my yard.

So, do we apply herbicides to our lawns to keep the weeds at bay? Lawn care experts at the University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tell us that chemical herbicides can be used safely, but only if you follow the directions on the label and heed a few words of advice. First, the recommended time to treat for broadleaf, perennial weeds like dandelions is in the fall, not now, and second, herbicide should be applied only in areas where it is needed, not the entire lawn. Apply too much herbicide, and there is a risk that the excess could wash off into nearby lakes, streams or storm sewer systems, or that it could leach into groundwater supplies.

There are also dozens of organic and home-made herbicides and quite a few chemical-free weed control strategies as well. I recently tried a recipe I’d seen posted by friends on Facebook, consisting mainly of vinegar with a splash of salt and dish soap as well. The recipe was cheap and easy to make, but not entirely effective. Some of the dandelions I sprayed died, while a few only withered. Furthermore, the mixture kills grass as well, so you have to be careful where you spray it. Other recommendations I have seen include burning the weeds with a blowtorch or scalding them with boiling water.

No matter which strategy you employ, weed control is fairly labor intensive, which is why many lawn care experts say that the best defensive against weeds is to maintain a healthy lawn. This means mowing regularly to avoid damaging the grass blades, letting the grass grow taller, especially during the hot summer months, applying fertilizer once a year around Labor Day, and repairing bare spots as they appear. The other alternative, of course, is to embrace you inner child, look at the dandelions and love them.

I’ll be meditating on that thought this week as I sit in my yard, yanking out dandelions.