How to Control Dandelions

Identification Through Pictures, Tips on Dandelion Removal

Dandelion
Joerg Hauke/Getty Images

What makes dandelion removal from lawns so difficult? Well, dandelions enjoy the best of both worlds. Above-ground, their seeds ride the wind currents, poised to drop into the slightest opening in your lawn to propagate the species. Meanwhile, below-ground, they strike down a taproot up to 10" long. Pulling the taproot as a means of removal is problematic. Thick but brittle, the taproot easily fractures -- and any fraction of the taproot that remains in the ground will regenerate.

How to Kill Dandelions: Pulling Them

If you're hard-headed enough to want to try to pull these weeds, despite the difficulty just mentioned, here's how to proceed:

  • To facilitate weeding, water the lawn first (weeds are more easily extricated from wet soil).
  • Make an incision into the soil, down along the side of the taproot, using a knife, screwdriver or similar tool (tools designed specifically for dandelion removal can be found in home improvement stores).
  • Wiggle the tool to loosen the taproot
  • Using the ground as a fulcrum, try to pry up the weed. Get a good grip on the leaves (as many of them as you can close your hand over) and use them as your "handle" on which to tug.
  • Give the weed a gentle tug to see if the taproot is yielding.
  • If the taproot is yielding, remove the dandelion weed from the soil. Otherwise, make further incisions around the taproot, wiggle and continue to tug gently at the leaves.

    How to Kill Dandelions: Herbicides

    I'm not a proponent of using herbicides when an alternative exists that works just as well. But killing dandelions is a case where one might consider using herbicides, despite one's usual disinclination to do so. As mentioned earlier, all it takes is leaving a fraction of the root behind, and your efforts at pulling dandelions will have gone for naught!

    Furthermore, as the following list (hardly exhaustive) of herbicides for killing dandelions illustrates, not all "herbicides" are chemical mixtures bought at the store.

    Examples of Herbicides for Dandelions

    It's the acetic acid in vinegar that gives it herbicidal potential. The higher the percentage of acetic acid in the vinegar, the better. Vinegar used for culinary purposes is relatively low (5%) in acetic acid, but you can boil it down to increase its strength prior to the application.

    If you use either vinegar or Roundup, apply the herbicide directly onto the leaves of the weeds, since these herbicides are non-selective and would harm your grass. By contrast, Weed-B-Gon is selective (it targets broadleaf weeds) and won't harm grass, making it a popular choice for killing dandelions in the lawn.

    When to Apply Herbicides on Dandelions

    Early fall is the best time to kill dandelions with herbicides. Dandelions are broadleaf, herbaceous perennials. Since their leaves die back in winter, it is through their roots that the plants live on. In early fall, nutrients are transferred from the leaves down to the roots.

    This transfer, which continues until the first killing frost, presents you with an opportunity to hit them where it really hurts! Herbicides applied during this time are absorbed by the leaves and passed on to the roots, following the same path down as the nutrients.

    For at least 2-3 days prior to applying herbicides, don't mow the lawn. The bigger the surface area of the dandelion leaves, the more effective your application can be. Likewise, following the application of herbicide, wait at least 2-3 days before mowing, to allow time for the herbicide to be transferred to the roots.

    Preventive Dandelion Control

    Promoting lawn health is the best method of dandelion control. Don't think of your lawn grass as a passive partner, which has to be rescued from weeds after the fact. If managed properly, your lawn can compete effectively against weeds, obviating the need for laborious dandelion removal.

    Follow these lawn care tips:

    All of the foregoing remarks assume that your approach to dandelions will be hostile. But that needn't be the case. For those willing to consider a more tolerant approach to dandelions....

    The scientific name for dandelions is Taraxacum officinale. When you see the word, officinale in a name, it means the plant has been prized for its medicinal properties. In this case, the roots, flowers and "dandelion greens" not only have medicinal uses, but also culinary uses. The greens are, in fact, quite nutritious. All of which may make some readers receptive to an approach to dandelions that differs markedly from the one explored earlier when we considered how to get rid of dandelions. But before expending energy on eradication efforts, perhaps a more fundamental question needs to be asked first: Should we get rid of the dandelions in our lawns? How you answer that question depends on your aesthetic tastes.

    The war on lawn weeds in general -- not just dandelions -- is based on the notion that "the lawn is meant to showcase the diligence of the person who owns it," as I remark in my brief History of Lawn Mowers. According to this view, lawns should be uniformly composed of grass, with no "intruders" permitted. Clover in lawns, e.g., is persecuted as a weed, even though clover, in many ways, is superior to grass as a lawn plant.

    But others would argue that dandelions bear rather attractive flowers, whose yellow hue complements a green lawn nicely.

    "While the flower isn't bad," perhaps you object, "the seed head that succeeds it is unsightly." Even so, there are easy ways to minimize the impact of dandelions on the lawn, as long as you're willing to show some tolerance toward their presence. One way is to pluck the flowers as they appear. Another is to eat your weed problems away!

    All parts of the dandelion are edible:

    • Dandelion root can be roasted as a coffee substitute, or boiled and stir-fried as a cooked vegetable.
    • Dandelion flower can be made into a wine, or boiled and stir-fried as a cooked vegetable.
    • Dandelion greens (i.e., the leaves) can be boiled, as you would spinach, and used as a cooked vegetable, in sandwiches or as a salad green with some "bite." Consult recipes for dandelion greens for ideas. 

    Of the 3 parts of the plant, the leaves are the most widely used. For those curious about the proposition of "eating their weed problems away," I'd suggest focusing only on the dandelion leaves at first. Experiment! I'm not asking you to become an Ewell Gibbons overnight. And you can continue (half-heartedly, to be sure!) trying to get rid of dandelions while you're at it, just in case you decide to give up this more tolerant approach to dandelions.

    That is, even if you wish to harvest only the dandelion greens, you can still work, at the same time, on controlling the dandelions in your lawn, so that fewer will go to seed. When you're harvesting the dandelion leaves, pull up a good chunk of root, while you're at it. You don't have to fuss over it, because the objective is now different: we're not aiming for the total eradication of dandelions, we're just trying to slow down their growth, thereby hindering seed production. The dandelion plant may still recover (regeneration can occur from the slightest bit of root remaining), but it won't be able to reproduce for a while. Bring the dandelion leaves inside for washing and dispose of the portion of root you extracted.

    Getting Rid of Dandelions the Smart Way: Harvesting Dandelion Greens

    Why is harvesting dandelion greens in this fashion the smart way of solving the problem of getting rid of dandelions? Because it allows you to kill two birds with one stone. Getting rid of dandelions (or even just hindering their seed production) means work. By my reckoning, if you can derive something from such work that saves you money, then you're that much further ahead.

    And harvesting dandelion greens can save money. They're high in vitamins A and C, and iron. Why pay extra at the store to purchase foods with similar (or, often, inferior) nutritional value, when you have a free source in your yard? Just avoid harvesting near roads, since road salt and/or toxins may be present. Likewise, you obviously shouldn't harvest from a lawn where herbicides have been used.

    But what about the taste, you ask? Dandelion greens taste like other salad greens with a "bite," such as chicory and escarole. And how you go about harvesting and cooking them also plays a role in the taste. You should harvest dandelion greens in early spring before the flowers appear. That's when they're the tenderest and least bitter. After the first frost in fall is another time when dandelion greens aren't so bitter. Boiling them will further reduce their bitterness.

    Does the thought of tolerating the presence of dandelions in your lawn leave a bitter taste in your mouth? If so, the approaches outlined earlier in the article will be more suited to your tastes. But if you give harvesting dandelion greens a try, you just might end up being glad that dandelions are so darned hard to get rid of.

    Index to Common Lawn Weeds

    Sign up for my free email courses: Landscaping Course Descriptions