Gardening: Time to target dandelions is now

GardeningMay 9, 2012 

Let's talk dandelions. Why? Because they are among the first things to green up. This is significant because the lawns and gardens they invade have not. They are easy to spot since lawns won't really green up for a couple of more weeks and gardens won't be planted for several more. We have a terrific window of opportunity to work on these invasive weeds.

Let's get the morality part of the column out of the way first. Under no circumstances should any reader get out the lawn spreader, hose end or pump spray and apply any of the commercially available poisons traditionally used to kill dandelions. You know what I am talking about, and just in cases you don't, I mean weed and feed products (they won't work until temperatures get a lot warmer, anyhow) and impossible to pronounce, synthetically made formulas like 2-4-d products.

In my opinion (and spare me the hate mail) you have no right to use anything but an organic weed killer. To use anything else not only risks jeopardizing your health, that of your children and pets, but also anyone within a huge radius. Spay drifts 75 miles. (You listening, Alaska Railroad?) Don't believe me? Just read the labels or use your search engine and read about the health hazards for your product. The argument is not that these are very effective at what they do and organic remedies are not as good. This is way more than trumped by the health and community issues involved. You have no right to harm others. It is antithetical to gardening, anyhow.

OK. So the available remedies. Let's start with clove oil based products. These smell great and will kill the dandelion at the surface and sometimes the whole plant. They work in about 12 hours. If the whole plant is not killed, the tap root will generate one or more new plants in about 4 or 5 weeks. You can either apply more again, or the lawn may outcompete the new plants. In any case, they shouldn't flower this year.

Vinegar based products are a bit more dangerous to apply. Usually the kind you buy at the supermarket is not strong enough as it is only 5 percent acetic acid, the killing agent. There are horticultural vinegars which range from 10 to 25 percent acetic acid. These are very caustic. Again, the plant to is killed and in this case more of the tap root, so the return of plants, if the root isn't killed, is slower. Again, there shouldn't be any flowers this season.

Of course, the ultimate is hand control. This is when that Fiskars weed puller shines. The target is so clear. In fact, any of the mechanical gadgets designed to pull dandelions from the lawn will work great this time of year. And, if you just do a couple of 15 minute sessions every night, you will really reduce the numbers of flowers you are going to see this summer. Just let the plants sit on the lawn or in the garden and decay, which they do quickly. Or toss them into the compost pile. If you have enough they may provide enough sugars for the microbes to really heat it up.

Finally, we all have to learn to stop obsessing on dandelions. I can attest that this is very difficult. Many of use were trained at an early age to hate them. Television commercials convince us they are public enemies. Yes, they can take over, but still, a few in the lawn, especially if you keep the flowers mowed, won't hurt and will even provide calcium for the grass plants.

Still, there is this window and, if you are smart, you will take advantage of it and then let the lawn and garden plants that haven't started growing outcompete them.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com and hear him (and call in) on the Garden Party from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays on KBYR, 700 AM.

Garden calendar

POTATOES: START YOURS NOW OUTDOORS. LEAVE ROOM FOR HILLING. CONSIDER GROWING THEM IN A DEEP CONTAINER.

SEEDS TO START: SQUASH ONION SETS: PLANT 'EM OUTDOORS NOW.

OTHER VEGETABLES TO START OUTDOORS: PEAS, SPINACH, CHARD, MUSTARD, KALE

FLOWERS TO PLANTS OUTDOORS NOW: SWEET PEAS.

NURSERIES: GO! START LOOKING FOR BARE ROOT SALES FOR TREMENDOUS SAVINGS.

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