Dandelions, bees, and staircase wit

By Heather Gates

Last month while working in my yard, I chatted with a hired hand from the house next door. We shared brief pleasantries about the weather, and then he nodded toward my front yard and said, “That’s a nice crop of dandelions you’ve got there.”

Now, I often experience what the French call l’esprit d’escalier, which translates as “staircase wit:” thinking of the perfect comeback when it is too late, when one is already headed down the stairs to leave. But I rarely let a teaching moment pass by unused.

Instead of answering with a witty retort, I agreed with him, and then waxed rhapsodic about the “bee diner” that is my front yard, focusing on the many benefits of the maligned dandelion, and sharing how a local beekeeper made a plea to homeowners (at a recent Green Tuesday event) to help save the honey bee by leaving dandelions alone.

Photo by JR Guillaumin used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo by JR Guillaumin used under a Creative Commons License.

Dandelion pollen is an early season food for bees, and bees are in peril. Exposure to pesticides’ inert ingredients, as well as their toxins, appears to play a part in the enigmatic Colony Collapse Disorder that is decimating bees around the globe. (Read more in this article from National Geographic.)

We need to do all we can to help bees because saving bees saves our food supply and therefore saves us. What a necessary thing it is for bees to pollinate our food. What a good thing it is to have dandelions in our yards to feed the bees.

The hired hand nodded and smiled. Apparently lacking the time to hear a full treatise on our society’s misguided war on good weeds, he quickly backed away from my green and yellow lawn and me. And I had not even begun to share the good that clover does for soils or the bad that pesticides and fertilizers do to Lake Monona!

While standing on my soapbox was so easy, I am still surprisingly wobbly about weeds. I feel a range of emotions about them. Professor William Stearn describes the root of this ambivalence in the 1956 Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, “Taken as a whole, weeds are not so much a botanical as a human psychological category within the plant kingdom, for a weed is simply a plant which in a particular place at a particular time arouses human dislike…”

Having grown up in a particular place and time that favored monoculture lawns, my rote emotional response to certain plants is to feel a well-taught dislike that makes me want to pull them. I have had to examine my ingrained dislikes, adjust my views, and become more selective about which plants need pulling and which should be left to do their good works. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t hear the wrath of my fogey forebears in my head when I look at my “bee diner.”

While freeing the psyche of “green carpet socialization” can be hard, just taking steps to improve the home that the bees and we share—our soil, air, lakes, rivers, etc.—can be quick and easy. Here are a few things you can do right now to help all of us have a healthier and happier home.

Let it live. Don’t use pesticides. Instead, make a good lawn by improving your soil, and allow good weeds to stay. Weeds reduce water loss, stabilize soil, serve as foods and fuels, shelter other plants and beneficial insects, and hold together and restore landscapes torn apart by floods, landslides, fires, and human activities. Dandelions’ deep taproots reach through topsoil and bring up moisture and minerals that help shallow-rooted plants. In areas with poor soils, weeds are able to grow and serve to hold the soil in place (rather than erode). Their extensive root systems make channels for drainage, and when they decay, add humus to the ground. (Check out the library book Good Weed, Bad Weed: Who’s who, what to do, and why some deserve a second chance by Nancy Gift and Sheila Rodgers for guidance.)

Let it die. Grass clippings are rich in nitrogen, an important fertilizer. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, leaving clippings on your lawn has the same benefits as one fertilizer application. Grass clippings are about 90% water, so they begin to decompose almost immediately after hitting the ground. Left in place, clippings return nutrients to the soil. Grass clippings do not cause thatch. Often misunderstood, thatch is explained well at: http://www.uri.edu/ce/factsheets/sheets/thatch.html

Mow it high. Don’t mow off more than one-third of the grass blades in your lawn at a time. If you mow at two inches, don’t let the grass grow more than three inches. Higher grass shades the soil. This keeps soil cooler, which reduces water evaporation. The grass will need less water. Shade also helps lower weed germination. Although mowing the grass shorter would seem to mean you don’t need to mow as often, that isn’t true. The grass just works harder and faster to grow back, pulling nutrient reserves from its roots and increasing the likelihood of drought and/or heat stress.

Sweep ‘em up. Always sweep up grass clippings that land on streets, sidewalks, driveways, and other impervious surfaces. If you don’t, rain carries all these materials into the storm sewers and into our lakes where they cloud the water, stress aquatic life, and accelerate the growth of unwanted algae. If you’ve also used chemicals on your lawn, then the chemicals are carried into the lakes, too. Tossing the clippings on our compost bins or piles, garden beds, or the lawn from whence they came adds valuable nitrogen back into our growing areas.

If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em. Many weeds are edible. See this video for three weeds you can toss in a salad, and this post for five recipes for dandelion wine (made from the blossoms).

Yep, the bee diner can be a people diner, too.

Extra links:
Dynamic accumulators (plants that gather nutrients from the soil and make them available to other plants) for better soil
Wisconsin noxious weeds
A weed by any other name
Putting your lawn and garden to bed (planning for fall)

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