Daddy, why don't people like dandilions?

Since Spring began, my 3-½-year-old boy has repeatedly asked me why people don’t like dandilions. Daryl’s a fan. He thinks they’re pretty flowers, and he enjoys blowing their seeds.

I’ve tried — with little success — to convince him that many people don’t like dandilions because their ideal lawn is uniformly green. I’ve also explained that, while I too think dandilions are pretty, our neighbors wouldn’t appreciate it if we let them grow in our lawn. Daryl just can’t believe people want their lawns to have only grass — and a single type of grass at that.

For the past five years, I’ve refused to apply chemicals (other than organics, like corn gluten meal) or water our lawn. I’ve read a fair amount about organic lawns and greatly prefer them because they’re sustainable (consuming far fewer resources), robust (because they aren’t addicted to chemical fertilizers), more alive (because earthworms and other insects like natural dirt), healthier for insects and birds (because it’s not contaminated with pesticides), healthier for people (esp. our kids), healthier for the environment (because so many lawn chemicals get washed away by the rain), and less demanding of our time (because not babying a lawn with lots of water and fertilizer encourages the growth of self-sustaining grass with deeper roots).

Organic lawns are also, arguably, prettier. But beauty is subjective. My lawn is most definitely not the neighborhood’s prettiest, but it’s far from the ugliest. And every year it seems to look a bit better than the previous year. I pulled most dandilions by hand a few years ago (my back still remembers), so my lawn is mostly dandilion free… though two neighbors across the street have quite a few and keep “giving” us more. But I’ve given up worrying about this patch of clover or that patch of grass which stays brown longer than my other grass. If splotches of grass grow much faster than the rest, I yank them because I don’t want to have to mow more often because 5% of my grass grows much faster. For the most part, I’m at peace with my mostly green lawn with many different kinds of grasses (and a few non-grasses).

But one next door neighbor’s lawn looks like Fenway Park, and I feel guilty that my lawn falls so short of his ideal (even though his chemical-and-water-intensive approach falls so far from my ideal). Because his is the “accepted” approach, I feel guilty. I’m not alone. Robert Wright today states his case for embracing dandilions while sharing his guilt:

As I’ve told my neighbors, I feel bad about lowering the value of their property. I mean, it isn’t my goal to have a front yard that, by standard reckoning, is unattractive. The unkept look of my lawn is just a byproduct of a conclusion I reached a few years ago: the war on weeds, though not unwinnable, isn’t winnable at a morally acceptable cost.

Most of the comments endorse Wright’s approach. Here are some from the first of seven pages of comments:

  • Dandelions are healthier than than any green vegetable, e.g. spinach, broccoli. Thousands of Europeans survived on them in World War II, as my family did during the great depression…. I shall harvest some tomorrow in locations I have kept secret for years, rince them thoroughly and scramble them in olive oil with fresh eggs. A breakfast to die for.

  • [The dandilion] is an alien, brought here by the early Colonists for its medicinal benefits—the root is a diuretic, and the young leaves were a welcome Spring potherb. The flowers make a delicious wine and cordial.

  • in Portland, Oregon… people have decided to NOT HAVE LAWNS !!! We have removed all the grass from our yard and planted shrubs, flowers, and laid some stone—— really great and beautiful!

  • A weed is any plant that grows where one does not want it to grow. Mr. Wright’s dandelions are naturalized wildflowers in his lawn and menacing weeds in the neighboring lawns. Lush, weed free suburban lawns might be beautiful to look at but are the least environmentally sound alternative for any home. A meadow of native wildflowers and grasses is the smartest, most environmentally sound alternative. It attracts butterflies and good insects, doesn’t require watering, mowing or chemicals and the end result can also be quite beautiful to look at as it changes with the seasons.

  • get rid of the grass altogether, and plant a vegetable garden or fruit trees

  • Maybe if I email this article to my wife she will stop complaining about all the dandelions in the yard.

  • All our natural bodies of water are experiencing eutrophic changes due to the nutrient-rich fertilizer run-off entering them from our yards. People like to blame agriculture, and there is plenty of blame to go around, but most fertilizer run-off is from lawns.

  • There is a wonderful trend occuring in our town that produces lawns that are are individual as the owner of the property: the replacement of grass all together. Some reove the grass bit by bit and place flowers or vegetables where the sterile swath of grass used to be. Others have planted fruit trees and ground cover. Our front and back laws now consist of indiginous plants (all less than 30" tall, as required by local ordinance) with vegetables tucked in here and there. Our treelawn is being slowly converted from all grass to low-growing, nitrogen-fixing white clover. The result is lots of green but no mowing, no watering, no fertilizing. The benefits are endless: there are a lot of butterflies, humming birds, song birds, praying mantis families, 3 different types of bees and a very lovely aroma coming from plants that cool the yards in the heat of summer. It is a pleasure to come home from work to find local children gazing in wonder at all of the birds and insects in the middle of a 100 + year old inner-ring suburb. Thanks again for your commentary. And let’s hope more people embrace lawns that are not toxic waste dumps.

  • I got a break some years ago when a new neighbor moved next door and his lawn began to look worse than mine which is somewhat weedy with violets and dandelions and watered only by rain. The rest of the neighborhood is chemically enhanced. Then he lost his job and, with time on his hands, started paying much more attention to his grass with frequent and noisy mowing, edging, blowing, bagging, sprinkling, and fertilizing. I saw him this week frowning at my dandelions. I hope he finds work soon.

  • What’s with the love of chemicals anyway? All I can surmise is clever marketing playing on a consumers laziness.

One interesting dissenter:

  • What Robert Wright fails to recognize that if, as is generally the case, most people in his area desire dandelion-free lawns – and dandelions are a non-native, aggressively invasive species – then his annual dandelion seed generating exercise is a problem, not a solution. His downwind neighbors will use more aggressive herbicide treatments to kill the new dandelions that he is sending them every year.

Posted by James on Wednesday, April 21, 2010