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Good Growing

Dandelion: What makes this weed so great?

"Dad, come look at all the bees!" exclaimed my two young boys last weekend. We were in Quincy visiting my mother-in-law. The kids were playing outside, and they had made a tremendous discovery. Dandelions covered in bees.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officianle) are often regarded as the bane of our lawns and gardens. Dandelion's seed dispersal and resilience to all manner of controls make this plant a weed in most circumstances. However, I must stand up for this hapless plant. My first argument stems from childhood.

In my younger years, dandelions were not weeds; they were flowers with neat seed heads. As a child, I discovered wonder in dandelions. Summers often found me barefoot. As I walked through the yard, my toes would pluck dandelions, which I would tuck behind my ear. Dandelions were always plentiful for a bouquet to bring home to my mother. All manner of games revolved around the simple act of blowing off the seeds of a mature dandelion seed head. And of course, what child could resist smearing dandelion flowers on their face to turn your skin yellow?

Perhaps you have memories such as these for the dandelion. What would the world of a child be without the dandelion?

My second argument stems from the fact this flower is a good food source for pollinators that emerge early in the season when most of our landscapes are flowerless. As was mentioned prior, the dandelions in my mother-in-law's front yard were being frequented by honeybees (Apis mellifera) much to my children's delight. Looking around, I noted the only flowers in the neighborhood were dandelions and the occasional patch of henbit. Providing pollen and nectar sources for our early season pollinators is important to help stave off their dire plight of possible endangerment and extinction. (I might add homeowners can do this with more than just dandelions, but that's another article.)

My third argument is dandelions are edible. Humans have been cultivating and eating dandelions for thousands of years. Europeans brought dandelions to North America as a crop, not a weed. All parts of the plant can be consumed, provided you do not spray pesticides on the plant or have a pet that uses your yard as a toilet. It is even possible to make dandelion wine. What's not to love?

Dandelions are perennial plants and seem to emerge and bloom with the greening of our cool season turf grasses. During the summer the flowers may fade a bit, but you can usually find a couple of dandelions, at least in my yard. Fall brings a second flush of blooms and seed heads.

If, like most homeowners, you find dandelion to be a weed and control is your goal, there are options available. First comes hand-pulling. Dandelions are weeds for a good reason. When pulled, if you don't get all the taproot, very often the plant will sprout from what is left behind in the soil. Hand-pulling works best when the soil is wet after a rain event. There is all manner of contraptions to assist with popping out dandelions. This plant supports quite an industry.

Mulch is another great control technique for planting beds. Two to four inches thick should do the trick. What a great way to add organic matter to the soil and keeps the weeds down!

Flame weeding is another option. Keep in mind the heat from the flame, does not kill the root. Dandelions in my landscape beds are kept at bay through regular flame weeding. Dandelions can be a pyro's delight.

Mow cool season lawns higher at 3 inches, to make your turf more competitive over weeds. Also, your lawn will thank you if you haven't already raised your mowing height.

Herbicides are the last resort. Most homeowners seek control in the spring. However, better control is achieved during late summer to early fall applications.

My two boys were very anxious to show me what they discovered, a flower, which bees love. They each brought in dandelion bouquets for my wife with their own tucked behind their ear, just as their father had when I was a child.

Several minutes later my youngest, burst into the room with tears in his eyes. He stammered, "The man is killing the flowers"! I looked out the window and saw the neighbor using a dandelion popper and pulling out each dandelion in his yard.

"What will the bees eat?" he asked with concern for his new winged friends.

The neighbor caught my eye, and we smiled and waved. Turning to my son, I said, "They still have our flowers."