Apr 23

Weed Me a Riddle

The definition of a weed is a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. The operative word here is plant. It can be an iris, tulip, marigold, squash or tomato; if it is growing where you don’t want it, it is a weed.

With respect to gardening, some people are convinced that if you look up the word weed in the dictionary it is spelled dandelion (I did and it isn’t); but the word dandelion is defined as “A plant, widely naturalized as a weed in North America.” If the dandelion is growing in their lawn, then by definition it is a weed; and if you want to declare war against it then I say, “Know your enemy.

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, Teeth of the Lion, a bitter herb sold in the marketplace; is of Arabic origin (though some texts place it in China). It migrated from the Middle East to Europe and then here to North America where it naturalized and is now considered a native plant. A perennial, it dies back to the crown in winter; storing food for next year’s growth underground in its’ tap root.

The entire plant has uses. Leaves are eaten in salads or cooked in soups and medicinal teas. They are reputed to rival other greens as a good source of calcium, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. I am not about to dispute any of the claims; the plant has been cultivated for thousands of years so there must be some truth there. When dried, the tap root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The flowers can be used to make dandelion wine; a subject I remember reading about in 1978.

As a child I remember my father pulling off the road to let my grandfather pick chigordias. We couldn’t pick and eat the plants from our yard because they were too bitter, but the dandelions growing on the roadside with the lubricant runoff, lead gasoline fumes and asbestos brake pad dust were just fine.

Now, before you declare all of this information as ancient history, and I am not; there are several catalog houses still offering dandelion seeds. You can purchase a package for your garden, or buy it by the pound for your farm. My guess is that these people are not planting the seed in their lawns, and my question is, “Why buy the seeds when you can just move the plants from your lawn to the garden.”

The earliest declaration of the dandelion as a weed I could find was in Henry T. Finck’s epic text, Gardening with Brains, Harper and Brothers, 1922. Coincidently the declaration was in reference to the plants growing in the lawns of theLong Island estates.

Weed? Flower? Weed? Flower? Well they are growing in my lawn and I do not want them there; so they are weeds. Some people will immediately reach for herbicides in the spring, but with perennials, herbicides applied in the fall are more effective when plants are storing energy in their tap roots for the next season’s growth. Springtime affords other options.

My approach to disease, weeds, and pests is to start organic and escalate from there. The last thing I want to do is spread herbicides or pesticides on my entire lawn. For now, I am hand pulling the dandelions; using a long handled four tined fork buried strait down about four inches from the plant. When I pull the handle back, the dandelion rises in the center of a clump of grass and when the tap root snaps (about ten inches down) the plant is easily lifted out. In addition to being easy on my back I am loosening and aerating the soil, and I have all those greens to make a salad.

April 23; My Eureka Moment

When it comes to using chemicals, those things that end in CIDE, I am a minimalist. I have herbicides, pesticides and fungicides on the top, out of reach, clearly marked, shelf of the shed; and I have separate spreaders for these weapons of mass destruction. My preference however is to only use them when I have no other choice.

That was the position I thought I was in last year when I looked across my lawn and saw a sea of yellow. The dandelions had taken over and were moving into the planting beds.

Now I grew up hating the dandelion weeder. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t do a very good job, I am convinced that the twelve-inch long tool was invented to torture people over six-feet tall. Stringing a line and need a stake? Prying a rock out of a hole? It is a great general purpose tool. Pulling weeds? Not so great.

A lot of people must share my view because there are so many no hassle chemical weed killing products on the market; but I am not convinced that they work as well as advertised, especially when the manufacturers feel obligated to remind you that the “New weeds” blew in from your neighbor’s yard.

The problem is the dandelion’s tap root; all of the energy needed for the plant to grow is stored there. It has lateral roots that help anchor the plant and if the weeder doesn’t cut through those laterals, then when you pull what you end up with in your hand is one or two inches of root; or more often, just leaves. Either way, the dandelion will come back.

One tool that I had been using in my planting beds was the long handled spading fork. Inserted a few inches from the weed, as I pull back on the handle the four ten-inch tines loosen the soil and pop the entire tap root out.

Weeding cannot get much easier than that. “Why not try it on the lawn?” I know, but sometimes it requires an intervention, and that is what happened. When I opened the shed door the fork was the first thing I saw.

Eureka moment? Not really, more like a “Hey I have an idea” moment, and this is what I did. Every night after dinner I walked the lawn pulling weeds with the spading fork. Five nights, two hours, and seven five-gallon buckets later there were no more dandelions.

An unintended benefit of the exercise was that I also aerated the lawn. That little bit of gardening last year has returned huge dividends this year. I’ve only had a handful of dandelions so far. This technique works great on other weeds like Wild Violets, Broadleaf Plantain, Curly Dock and Pigweed.

Neither the spading fork nor the weeder works on spreading weeds like Purslane or Wild Geranium. Then, even I know it is time to reach for the weed killer; but I use it as a smart weapon targeting the weeds only, not one of mass destruction.


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One Comment

  1. Reda says:

    Karen,THAT’s your yard? How beautiful it’s a dream of mine! I’m so glad you’re not about kepnieg up with the Joneses. When did people ever decide that a series of manicured lawns should be the preference? I love dandelions (and dandelion salad, though it’s been a long long time since I’ve had any as I’m too afraid to eat the stuff around here)and we blow the fluff everywhere. Do your neighbors complain?And what plugin are you using that lets you respond to each comment within that comment box?Hi Barb, I have great neighbors who understand our situation with our dogs and wildlife. If they’re unhappy about it, they’re kepnieg it to themselves. WordPress gives you the option of editing all comments, so to add a comment within that comment box I just hit the edit button and type in bold below the original comment.

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