If you grew up in the suburbs of midwestern America, as I did, and if your adolescence involved any form of lawn care, as mine did, you were probably conditioned from birth to think of dandelions as weeds. This is just one of the many forms of psychic damage that was inflicted upon me before I was old enough to defend myself, for as it turns out, dandelions are not a “weed”–that is, an undesirable plant–at all. They are one of the most helpful plants in existence.
Since becoming a permaculturalist, I’ve realized that there is really only one weed I need to worry about, and that’s grass. I can hear the howls of outrage from the elderly men, all long gone now, who used to pay me two dollars an hour to mow their lawns and weed their gardens on our street in Erie. I grew up in a neighborhood full of retirees, and these guys had little else to do with their time but care for their lawns, all of which were treated with a reverence typically reserved for holy sites. No dandelion ever stood a chance on Connecticut Drive.
From the point of view of overall soil health, a lawn is about the worst thing you can choose. Any monoculture–that is, any place where a single plant is forced to grow alongside thousands of others just like it–is unnatural, and therefore unhealthy. Monocultures do not occur in nature. What does happen in nature is polyculture–which is when lots of different kinds of plants grow side by side. This is desirable because each plant consumes different nutrients, attracts different insects, and produces different effects on the environment. When plants are allowed to grow together like this, they exist in harmony–like an orchestra that is slightly chaotic, but overall very healthy and balanced, and immune to the kinds of blights that strike monocultures the world over.
Lawns, on the other hand, are monocultures. Their dense, shallow root systems create a layer that acts as a barrier to rainwater. The plants all consume the same resources, which means that the soil must be fertilized with chemicals to rectify the imbalance. (Just saying the word ‘chemicals’ to a permaculturalist is likely to get you a dirty look, and possibly a face-whipping with their dreadlocks.) The appearance of so-called “weeds” like dandelions is often the occasion for an application of herbicide, which is expensive, unnecessary, and unhealthy. And even though an herbicide is “only” supposed to kill plants, it may also kill earthworms and other beneficial creatures, which means that more chemicals must be applied to replace the good work they do.
Sure, lawns look pretty. I do like looking at a well-groomed expanse of grass. But I would rather look at a food forest, even a small-scale one, with lots of different plants of various sizes, perhaps with a little pond or fountain in the middle, and filled with lots of good, healthy things to eat. When you’re willing to challenge your own beliefs, you learn to redefine what you think is beautiful.
Enter the dandelion. The dandelion is the horticultural first responder of the suburbs. It thrives in the poor conditions that lawns create: compact soil, a choked-out, overly-dense root system, and depleted nutrient levels. When the dandelion sees this situation, it gets straight to work. Its long, deep roots loosen and aerate the soil, which means it becomes more receptive to moisture and more passable for earthworms and other root systems. When the plant dies, these roots decompose and add their nutrients to the soil. The leaves provide a delicious and highly nutritious green for humans to eat (early French settlers in Canada said that they would have died were it not for the “dent-de-lion”, so named because they imagined the leaf looked like a lion’s tooth.) The flower attracts bees and other pollinators. Every part of a dandelion is useful.
On Connecticut Drive, dandelions were eradicated promptly with tools and herbicides. Lawns were treated with regular applications of chemicals that probably help account for why our part of the country is called the Cancer Belt. If only they had been allowed to grow for a few years unimpeded, the dandelions would have put themselves out of a job. Their work of saving the world one lawn at a time would have been done. They would have moved on.
The solution to all this is not just to let dandelions grow in your lawn. The answer is to get rid of your lawn. The sooner, the better. Think for a moment about how much easier your life would be if you didn’t have a lawn to deal with. Go on, dare to dream. No more lawn mower, no more grass clippings, no more gas and oil, no more noise pollution, no more hassle. Instead, you would walk out your front door and harvest some salad greens, some apples, a few berries… whatever you chose to grow.
I realize this is a radical thought. It may take some of us years to accept it. Others never will. But a few of you will embrace this notion whole-heartedly.
This is one of the things permaculture is all about–growing food in harmony with nature, rather than working against it, with no chemical inputs, and enriching the soil with every crop, rather than depleting it. Permaculture is good for everyone, except the chemical manufacturers.
There is lots and lots of information on permaculture out there. If you’re interested, just Google it.