The Truth About Clover and Dandelions
This spring several readers have asked how to cope with dandelions in their lawns. Personally, I enjoy dandelions. I was recently in an orchard of ancient, sagging fruit trees in brave bloom despite their age. The trees stood in shaggy grass generously spangled with starry golden dandelions.
It was a lovely picture, and I think it sad that many people who might appreciate the scene as a picture would feel compelled to destroy it should the same sight occur in their own backyards.
Why do we feel such disdain for dandelions? For much the same reason that we dislike clover: we have been taught to. A few decades back, clover was a standard item in nearly every lawn mixture sold, countrywide.
A natural nitrogen fixer, clover stores atmospheric nitrogen captured from the air in little white nodules on its roots. (This trait is shared by all members of the legume family, from peas and beans to Scotch broom.) When annual clover dies, the stored nitrogen is released as natural plant food to nourish the lawn.
Annual clover was a standard addition to most turf mixtures because it grew lush and green where soil was too poor to support turf. In dying, it enriched the soil, making a more hospitable situation for slower-growing grasses.
Indeed, most lawns, private or institutional, were traditionally a healthy mixture of several types of grass blended with low-growing perennials, such as veronica and lawn daisies.
Today's mainstream lawns are far less resilient and less drought-tolerant than our ancestors' lawns because they don't represent a healthy ecosystem but an artificial and rather weak monoculture.
What happened? We got sold a bill of goods. As the chemical companies began looking for more ways to market their products, they realized that blended lawns represented a market opportunity.
If people could be taught that anything but turf grass was a problem in a lawn, chemical toxins might become an attractive alternative to weeding.
This marketing ploy succeeded to the point that North Americans spend billions of dollars each year on lawn care, much of which ends up as toxic pollutants in our natural water supplies.
So must you bite the ecological bullet and tolerate dandelions? Not necessarily. Dandelions are not really hard to get rid of once you know their simple secret. In fact, with this amazing technique, you won't even need to bend over. Like that idea?
Here's the scoop: Dandelions are quickly killed off by a robust, healthy, deep rooted lawn.
I found this fascinating fact in a trade article aimed at the farmers who grow dandelions as a trendy restaurant market crop. (Dandelions are very popular in spring salads and as early steamed or grilled greens.) Conversations with several growers revealed that, indeed, the leading pest for dandelion crops is none other than turf grass. Ironic indeed.
Before you decide to rid your own lawn or meadow of dandelions, try taking off your glasses. See how pretty they look? If you're not convinced, you'll probably want to establish an effective program of turf root building. While deeply rooted grass spells doom to dandelions, it also is what makes lawns more drought-tolerant and resistant to pests and diseases. Ideally, your lawn should have 12 to 14 inches of thriving roots. Typically, irrigated lawns have as little as one to two, so they have some root growing to do.
The essence of this root-building program is very simple: Give all your lawn areas an annual mulch of an inch of compost.
This can be done all at once in late winter or early spring, or in half-inch increments in spring and fall. Dump and rake in compost or use a manure spreader to get fairly even coverage. Don't worry about covering up growing grass; it will deeply appreciate the compost nutrients and rebound with zeal.
If you are starting a new lawn or renovating a tatty one, this technique will work for you, too. Spread the compost, then overseed with a drought-tolerant, regionally reliable turf blend, such as D. F. Marks' Low Mow.
The grass will come in stronger and more deeply rooted each time you carry out this simple practice. As the grass roots knit together and penetrate more deeply into the soil, several things happen. The turf becomes more drought-tolerant and less attractive to crane fly larvae. In addition, the dandelions begin to die.
In many cases, the dandelions are completely choked out in two to three seasons. If you can't wait, here's another secret: Dandelions are most vulnerable to root damage when in flower, especially in spring.
It takes a lot of energy to create blossoms and set seed. In spring, most of this energy comes from the storage root, since the plant's leaves are young and somewhat immature (thus not very good at storing nutrients back into the root).
Roots cut when the plant has made this big investment represent a serious loss from which the plant may never recover. Cutting is less deadly in summer and fall, when the storage roots have been replenished by mature foliage.
Still anti-dandelion? Get out there now with your hori-hori and you may reduce your repeat crop by a third.
Let the grass die. The next one is a joke I found on gardenweb.com that is similar to the above story, and rings true for us.
GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on earth? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.
ST. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers "weeds" and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.
GOD: Grass? But it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sodworms. It's sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?
ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.
GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.
ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -- sometimes twice a week.
GOD: They cut it? Do they then bail it like hay?
ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.
GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?
ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir. Just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.
GOD: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?
ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.
GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.
ST FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.
GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn leaves fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It's a natural circle of life.
ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.
GOD: No fooling? What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?
ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.
GOD: And where do they get this mulch?
ST FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.
GOD: Enough. I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?
ST. CATHERINE: "Dumb and Dumber," Lord. It's a really stupid movie about....
GOD: Never mind. I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.
What is the addiction to lawns? They do nothing, yet require lots of time and maintenace to make them do nothing. If you watched the video, Suburban Foodshed, I posted earlier, you would know that we have yards to grow productive plants, not resource-intensive plants. I hope one day we can all see the ridiculousness of it all, just as God did in the joke.