Gardening

Fighting dandelions in your lawn is a losing proposition

dandelions

OK, Alaskans, we are at the end of the first flush of dandelions for the 2022 summer season. In years way past, this would be my call to write a nasty column about the need to eradicate the yellow plague. I would enlist the herbicide gods and suggest the reader spray the life out of all dandelions.

This was back in the day when advertising was still really effective at molding trends and a weed-free lawn quickly established itself as the Holy Grail of suburban yardening. Weeds were anointed bad guys by herbicide manufactures with clout and Public Enemy No. 1 among them was the dandelion.

Time have changed. At the very least we have come to accept mowing dandelions down makes one lawn look pretty much like the weed-free one next door. And you can do all the very same things on a dandelion-filled lawn that you can on a weed-free one, though with a clearer conscience about impacts on your health and the environment.

Then there is the irrefutable evidence that weeds kept reappearing despite our efforts to spray them whenever they reared an ugly flower head. Over the long haul spraying, it is now clear, doesn’t do a thing. Your dandelions will be back. They will win.

There are at least three reasons for this that go beyond the thousand seeds these flowers produce. Each flower can produce 200 of them. These plants practice “apomixis.” They don’t need cross-fertilization for seeds to be viable. This is how one dandelion in your lawn turns into a lawn of dandelions.

Second, by the time you see a dandelion, it has already established a near-to-impossible-to-get-rid-of root system. When you try to dig it up, you will leave root pieces, each of which will grow into a new plant. Uh, oh.

Third, invasive species benefit from leaving home and going to new locations where predators have not evolved to help keep populations in check. There actually is a fungus, Sclerotinia minor, which will take out dandelions. It hasn’t been commercially developed, perhaps because it would affect lettuces, which are relatives of dandelions.

There is one other point. Even if you had neighbors that are not “organic jerks like Lowenfels” and we all eradicated our dandelions chemically on the same day, they would be back the following year. This is because they are established and ubiquitous in parks, playgrounds, forests, along coasts and more. The wind blows and in short order we would all have lawns with dandelions.

I won’t rant too much about using so-called chemical pesticides. I don’t like them. They don’t like bees and such and I don’t think they are safe. The drift from spraying travels miles. Just read the labels. Incidentally, fall, not now, is when you would spray as this is when the poisons get tied up in the roots and kill them.

The trick here folks, is mowing. We usually have a first flush of dandelions and then there are the “occasional” flowers that emerge throughout the season. Sometimes we have a second flush, depending on weather conditions. If you mow them early during the first flush, you will hide their presence. This is the one time you might want to bag your clippings for disposal or really good composting.

You can use one of several hand tools or one of the ever-increasing number of organic dandelion controls available. The latter usually consist of concentrated natural ingredients like clove, vinegar, forms of lemon and such. They leave “dog pee spots” as they are not selective and kill the surrounding grasses. Flamers are fun but you need to be very careful not to burn the yard — and Alaska — down, and they usually don’t hit the roots. They leave distinct burn spots that last for awhile and look far worse than the dandelions, which will be back.

Finally we need to drop the weed-free image imposed on us over the past 50 years or so by pesticide companies. Lawns are supposed to have clover, for example. Weeds in a lawn indicate an organic Yardener. In fact, I don’t like to even walk on a weed-free lawn lest I get chemical residue on my shoes and bring them home. So, to keep your neighbors happy, treat dandelions by mowing down the flowers and spend the time you save doing more important things.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

The Alaska Botanical Garden: Join! Visit even if you don’t! There are some great perennials in bloom you may want in your yard. The nursery is open. You can even order online and pick up when you visit — which you should. www.alaskabg.org

Peas: Vining ones need something to cling to.

Tomatoes: Start self-pollinating is in order. Use an old electric tooth brush.

Water: If it continues to be dry make sure your lawn and gardens get at least 1 inch of water a week. Don’t forget those raspberries.

Delphinium defoliators: They are here. Hand squish or spray with Bt.

Jeff Lowenfels | Alaska gardening and growing

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2020 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Reach him at jefflowenfels@gmail.com.

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