How do you get rid of dandelions once and for all?

The answer to this question is the topic of the previous post: natural succession.

Dandelions are the type of plants that characterize early stages of succession. As anyone who has battled with them knows, they prefer areas with lots of sun and little competition.

The secret of getting rid of them, then, is to eliminate these conditions.

Most lawns, if left to their own devices, would move away from these conditions by turning into forests. Mowing prevents this progression by serving as an artificial disturbance. By preventing any plants from growing more than a couple of inches tall, mowing maintains a site characterized by low competition for light and space at ground level – exactly the conditions that dandelions love! So  long as a yard is kept in an early succession stage, early succession “weeds” will continue to move in.

In a natural yard that mimics a prairie, with native plants adapted to grow 2-3 feet high and thrive in Wisconsin’s climate, dandelions have no place to squeeze in. They cease invading such a yard, simply because the conditions there are not inviting to them.

How do you get rid of dandelions once and for all?

What is natural succession?

Natural succession is the process by which one type of ecosystem turns into another type of ecosystem.

An empty ecosystem – a patch of bare dirt – will be colonized first by whichever plants are able to arrive most quickly. The winners in this race are usually the kinds of plants that people call weeds – plants that are able to tolerate poor conditions, grow quickly, and make lots of seeds. Over time, however, other types of plants will arrive. The second wave is usually dominated by small perennials, with shrubs arriving next. Finally, trees move in, greatly altering the characteristics of the area by casting shade where previously there had been sun. Plants that arrived earlier in the succession are shaded out and are replaced by others that don’t need as much light.

While the details of this progression vary from one place to another, ultimately, almost any area capable of supporting trees will turn into a forest ecosystem. Why, then, do we find ecosystems other than forests?

The reason is that succession is not a linear process. Rather, it is a cycle. Ecosystems can be “reset” to earlier stages of succession when a disturbance eliminates the kinds of plants that characterize later stages of succession. A natural disturbance – such as a fire, tornado, or landslide – tends to knock down trees, creating opportunities for small, sun-loving plants to move back in.

The natural ecosystems of Wisconsin are a good example of this. Prairies and oak savannas remained largely free of tree cover because of regular disturbance by fire. Without these disturbances, southern Wisconsin would historically have been covered by forest.

For this reason, people often say that a prairie “needs” disturbance in the form of fire. This is true in the sense that a prairie would not continue to be a prairie in the absence of fire. Instead, it would become a forest – different, but not necessarily worse.

What is natural succession?

What is garlic mustard?

Garlic mustard is a plant that tastes like it sounds. In its native range, it has been used as a cooking herb for centuries.

Its native range, however, does not include Wisconsin. Here, the plant tends to spread widely, and kill other plants. It does this by poisoning fungi that live in soil and benefit native plant species.

Garlic mustard is easy to recognize: it has fan-shaped leaves and small flowers with four white petals. Unlike dandelions, garlic mustard is easy to pull up. This is an effective way of getting rid of it.

After garlic mustard is pulled, it can be sent to one of three fates:

  • If the area has not been treated with herbicides or other chemicals, the leaves of the plant can be eaten. They are delicious in salads and pasta sauces, or on their own!
  • If the plant may have chemicals on it, but it has not yet flowered, it can be composted.
  • If the plant may have chemicals on it, and it has flowered, it should be placed in the garbage. This is because the plant can finish setting seed after being pulled, and the seeds can survive the composting process, allowing more plants to pop up the following year.

The leaves of garlic mustard look like this:

The flowers look like this:

A group of plants looks like this:

Image result for garlic mustard

What is garlic mustard?

Isn’t a natural yard more work?

Sitting on a lawnmower is easy, concedes Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of several books on natural landscaping. Converting a lawn to a natural yard, on the other hand, is a major project.

Homeowners with the means to do so can accomplish much of the conversion in a short amount of time by hiring a professional landscaper. Others may choose to do the work themselves, gradually replacing turf with native plantings. Either way, the new plants will take time to become established and look like what the homeowner had in mind.

During that time, the homeowner will continue to work by clearing invasives that try to move in, replacing plants that fail with others of the same or a different species, watering plants to help them get established, and so on. This is a very different kind of work from regular mowing, so it’s hard to say whether the overall effort is more or less.

Once natural plantings are established, the work involved in maintaining them decreases. They become better at resisting invasives and typically need very little water. The yard develops into a largely self-sustaining ecosystem.

In the long run, natural yards can be less work!

Isn’t a natural yard more work?

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are chemicals formulated to kill living organisms. The suffix “-icide” means “to kill”.

Pesticides are divided into categories such as insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. While a pesticide typically targets one or a few types of organisms, its effects are often not confined to the target. Some of the ingredients in pesticides are known to be human carcinogens, while many of the ingredients have not been tested for their human health effects.

For this reason, pesticides can be more dangerous than the organisms they’re meant to eliminate. Dandelions are harmless, and fewer than 1% of insects cause any trouble for people. In Madison, insect problems are rare enough that preemptive pesticide use is not warranted. If a problem does arise, ask a qualified entomologist for advice. Be wary of asking an exterminator – remember that they have a financial incentive to exaggerate the problem.

If you do choose to use pesticides, read the label carefully and follow the instructions exactly. Using a pesticide in any other way is a violation of federal law.

What are pesticides?

Why does that yard have weeds in it?

To answer that question, we must first ask what a weed is, and that is best addressed after looking at two other questions.

What is a non-native species?

A non-native species is a plant or animal living in a place where it was not historically found. Many plants popular among traditional gardeners are non-native, being European or Asian in origin. Even lawn grass is non-native! North America has over one thousand native species of grass, but none of them will put up with continual mowing. For this reason, when the developers of the early suburbs imported the idea of turf grass from Europe, they also imported the grass.

Unfortunately, European grass does not like the North American climate, which is why it tends to turn brown in the summer. This dormant state is natural and healthy for the grass, but some people find it unattractive. For this reason, some homeowners choose to water their grass to keep it green throughout the growing season.

What is an invasive species?

An invasive species is a non-native that tends to spread in its adoptive home. For example, the European species garlic mustard is considered invasive in North America. In its home range it is a harmless plant that has been used as a cooking herb for centuries, but elsewhere it tends to spread rapidly and kill other plants by poisoning fungi the plants rely on.

What is a weed?

A weed is simply a plant that a human observer does not like. It is a subjective designation, not a biological class.

Many gardeners consider dandelions to be weeds. Mowed, pulled, or herbicided, they just won’t go away!

Dandelions are a pioneer species. This means they are able to colonize disturbed areas where other plants cannot thrive. The dandelions, with their deep tap roots, are able to access nutrients other plants can’t reach. In the course of absorbing these nutrients, dandelions improve the soil, creating favorable conditions for other plants. In the absence of further disturbance, new plants will move into the area, quickly crowding out the dandelions, which have lost their competitive advantage.

Some species of dandelions are native to North America, while others were brought here by European settlers. The settlers purposely grew dandelions for their edible and medicinal qualities. The flowers are also an important early-spring food source for native pollinators.

Why does that yard have weeds in it?

In short, what one person sees as a weed, another person sees as a beautiful or useful plant!

Why does that yard have weeds in it?