Your friendly Planet Natural Blogger has been taken to task for saying organic gardening is no harder and maybe even easier than conventional gardening. This came while addressing vegetable gardening and the context was that eventually you may have less weeding, less watering, and less problems with insects after you’ve been using organic practice for a while. The criticism came using one work-intensive example: getting rid of dandelions without using chemical sprays.
Our critical friend has a point. It’s so much easier getting rid of dandelions with Roundup or other herbicides that are designed to penetrate the length of the dandelion’s long tap root. But then you have a frightful chemical, one that’s been shown to put embryonic and kidney cells at risk, lingering in your soil. The other problem with these kinds of herbicides: they don’t stop new seed, which may have blown in from far away, from germinating. Once a new dandelion plant starts growing in your yard, it’s time to spray again. And Again. And… well, you get the picture.
So, if you have a yard, and you don’t want to tolerate dandelions — or can’t eat them fast enough to keep them from taking over — what do you do? The answer is, of course, get to work. And now, as early as they start to appear in spring, is the time to begin.
Your odd and unusual Planet Natural Blogger will here make one confession: we like digging weeds. Digging weeds is good exercise and it puts us in close proximity to our growing things. Digging weeds also means we aren’t spraying weeds. And that’s the best feeling of all.
The problem with dandelions is their long tap root. Leave any part of it when digging them out and the plant will regenerate. So what to do? Dig them anyway. Then follow up. Now –early May or whenever dandelions begin to make their springtime appearance — is the time to go after them (it’s also the best time to harvest their leaves for salads). Use the “forked-tongue” or some variation dandelion tool; we’ve found it works better than knives or screwdrivers. You want to get the root from as deeply as you can. Here’s where the perfectionists among us will be disappointed: You’ll never get it all unless you dig it out– deeply — with a spade, taking a big chunk of sod along with it.
Once you’ve removed the root as deeply as you can you’ll be left with a small hole where the plant was removed. Carefully spray or pour standard white vinegar down the hole. The acidic vinegar will kill the root that’s left in the soil. Be careful applying it. The stuff is acidic enough that it will destroy grass or whatever else it touches (but it won’t hurt you).
If you have a lot of dandelions, this will take some time. Don’t make it too much work. Mark off a space and leave the rest for another day. This is a task you want to finish. If the dandelions are starting to flower — and this happens quickly in the spring — have your kids pick the blossoms before they can go to seed.
What about using the vinegar directly on the plant, without digging, or “flaming” the plants, burning them off with a torch? You’ll see a lot of organic references referring to these old methods but they have one problem. They seldom take care of the tap root and the plant will eventually grow back.
Once weeds are removed, how do you keep them from reseeding? The light, parasol-shaped dandelion seed carriers that kids love to blow off the flower can come to your yard from great distances. To discourage them, spread corn gluten on your yard. It will prevent any broad leaf seed from germinating that comes in contact with it. Studies have also shown that mulches of maple and ash leaves will naturally discourage dandelions from showing themselves in the spring. As with any mulch, don’t apply so much that your grass might be smothered. Here’s a great essay on how to rid your yard of dandelions organically.
Once again, healthy soil is the key to discouraging dandelions from getting started in your yard. The thicker and lusher your grass grows, the less chance dandelions will have to get a foothold.
You can see where diligence and a good work ethic is required to deal with dandelions organically. There’s one other quality that can help: tolerance. Just as organic gardeners learn to tolerate some insects in our gardens (especially the beneficial ones) and a few weeds poking up through the mulch (until they compete with our plants for moisture), tolerating dandelions will save you a lot of that work they require, especially when you have large areas of lawn or fields. After all, they can be attractive depending on your point of view. The one thing we know that’s definitely beautiful? Not using chemical sprays to control them.