Friday, June 3, 2011

Dandelions: scourge or salad green?

Yellow flowers mark beginning of seasonal battle

Dandelions have already bloomed and gone to seed in many parts of the Wood River Valley. Photo by David N. Seelig

Bright yellow flowers in lawns this time of year mean summer is on the way.

Dandelion blooms look so pretty, but the arrival of Taraxacum officinale also means the beginning of a lawn maintenance problem that can spread like wildfire.

A day or two after a dandelion bloom dries up, a sphere of seed parachutes will emerge. A good breeze will send future generations of this weed to the other end of one's lawn, or to other parts of town.

Controlling dandelions in the Wood River Valley poses a challenge. Some methods are cheaper than others. Some are toxic to the environment.

The next time you see a big green lawn with no dandelions at all, you may wonder what it took to keep it that way.

Landscape companies often use broadleaf chemical herbicides to fight dandelions without killing grass lawns.

Matt Douthit, co-owner of Big Horn Landscapes, was recently awarded a contract to maintain the city parks of Bellevue. Two years ago, the city turned away from chemical herbicides and began relying only on organic fertilizers to keep the its acres of greenswards healthy.

"We can't use chemicals at the Bellevue city parks," Douthit said. "But they don't offer organic herbicides. There isn't anything on the market that really works."

Valley residents have complained of an overabundance of dandelions this year, perhaps from a wet spring. Those who get a jump on them early by pulling or spraying herbicides will see less proliferation than those who let them go.

"Some clients will have us pull them, but it's a high cost at $25 to $35 an hour," Douthit said, "whereas spraying or putting down weed and feed-type fertilizers takes about an hour."

Douthit said that if grass is fertilized frequently, it will overtake the dandelions.

Kathryn Goldman is campaign director of the Blaine County Pesticide Action Network. She has made pleas to all cities in the valley to participate in an "integrated pest management" plan to reduce the use of chemicals in public spaces, including bike paths, parks and city rights of way.

"Weed species don't like healthy soils," she said. "The presence of weeds indicates specific things about your soil, like a lack of calcium, for instance."

Goldman recommends building up soils over time with organic fertilizers to increase the bio-diversity beneath the ground rather than spraying with herbicides and fertilizing grass to get it green. Her approach typifies the old farmers' saying, "Don't feed your plants, feed your soil." Goldman said healthy soils should include microscopic bugs, fungus and bacteria.

"Weeds don't mind the lack of these flora and fauna, because they are evolved to survive in undeveloped soils," she said. "They are telling you that your soils have reverted to an unhealthy state. It takes a little patience to build up the health of the soil."

Goldman said adding compost and bone-meal fertilizer are good ways to build healthy soils.

"I do have a few dandelions," said Goldman, who lives in Bellevue. "But I am unusual in that I don't have a lawn."

When dandelions get out of control on her property, Goldman said she pulls them up by the roots or sprays them with a 20 percent herbicidal vinegar product. Household vinegar is usually only about 3 percent vinegar and won't kill dandelions, she said.

Natalie Ertz is maintenance manager for Native Landscapes, a company that encourages the use of native and drought-tolerant plant species in the arid climate of the Wood River Valley. She said native species require less water and chemicals to treat plant diseases.

She said her experience with herbicidal vinegar is that it has to be applied nearly every day to be effective and is therefore labor intensive. She has crews pull dandelions early before they get out of control, and keep lawns and flowerbeds full so dandelions have no room to thrive. She will also spray chemicals to satisfy the demands of some clients.

"Some want chemicals and some don't," she said. "Some clients can tolerate a few dandelions here and there. Others don't want to see even one."

Ertz said some people like dandelions because they are edible.

"You can eat the greens on salads," she said.

Ertz said vacant, untended lots near a client's house can fill quickly with dandelions. When they go to seed, it creates problems for the whole neighborhood.

Ashley Wells, development and conservation assistant at the nonprofit Wood River Land Trust, heads up a "trout-friendly lawn" program aimed at keeping rivers safe for fish and other organisms.

"We're concerned with pesticide use and conservation," said Wells, who recommends pulling dandelions by the roots first, and then if that doesn't work, spot spray.

"If you do spray, don't do so before a big rain, so the chemicals don't run off into the river," she said. "Herbicides in water can be harmful to fish productivity, water quality and human and animal health."

Perhaps the zero-tolerance policy that some landowners have toward dandelions should be reconsidered.

"Dandelions aren't a noxious weed, and so it's more of a neighborly thing to control them, rather than a matter of complying with a law," Goldman said. "These plants aren't going to harm us and, in fact, they supply a little pit stop for bees and other beneficial insects as they move through the neighborhood."

Tony Evans:

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