Clover and Dandelion - Two Lawn Weeds That Get No Respect

Learn about these common lawn weeds to gain an appreciation for their many uses

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A clover lawn. It may not sound right at first. Clover is commonly thought of as a weed, sprayed away with herbicides in favor of the perfect lawn, but put a little thought into it and it can begin to make perfect sense. White clover is an ideal candidate to become at least blended into grass lawns if not replace them completely. The fact that clover is a legume means that it can take it's own nitrogen out of the air, which means it doesn't need fertilizer.

Add to that it's drought tolerance and soon enough we're scratching our heads wondering why clover is not a part of our lawns.

Well, clover was actually a part of the typical American lawn prior to World War II. Clover was a part widely available seed blends along with fescues, rye grasses, and Kentucky bluegrass. It's ability to thrive in poor soil, fix it's own nitrogen, and survive in drought conditions made it a valuable part of the lawn mix. The clover growing throughout the lawn actually aided in the growth of the surrounding grasses, what a system! It wasn't until shortly after WWII with the advent of suburbia and a naiveté towards the new world of chemicals did clover become stigmatized . Although clover is different from weeds like dandelion and plantain, it was still broadleaved and succumbed to the new weed killer chemicals being sold to the public. It wasn't long before the chemical manufacturers were able to convince everyone that clover was bad too.

Just another weed to eliminate in the quest for the perfect lawn.

What is clover?

The most common clover for lawns is the white clover (trifolium repens) commonly found in fields, ditches, roadsides and anywhere else it has managed to take hold. Characterized by its 3-part leaves and white, pink tinged flowers, clover is low growing, maxing out at about 6 inches with the flowers usually rising above the leaves.

Red clover (trifolium pratense), named for its dark pink flowers, is also abundant in the wild but is less desirable as a lawn due to it's higher growth habit - up to 14 inches.

Several species of clover are widely used as a forage crops for domestic animals and as a soil-improving crop used in farming. Easily grown in a variety of conditions and high in nutrients, clover makes an ideal field crop for cattle and other grazing livestock. Clover's ability to fix nitrogen from the air enriches the soil, adding nitrogen used in the following year's crop.

Bees and other pollinators are extremely attracted to clover flowers and clover is an integral part of the delicate life cycle of honey bees. While a lawn teeming with bees may not be for everyone, it is a lot more interesting and interactive than most alternatives.

Why clover for a lawn?

The fact that clover is a legume, capable of fixing it's own nitrogen out of the air is behind the desirable nature of the clover. Clover is among the first plants to green up and thrive in the spring and retains its green color throughout the winter. The low growth habit of white clover means it can go without mowing all season long if desired. A clover lawn needs only to be mowed a couple of times a year to maintain its growing habit maintain its appearance.

Clover is the ideal lawn surface for homes where there is little activity on the lawn and the desired result is more aesthetic than functional. For high activity lawns, clover blends are making a comeback and can once again be a part of the lawn mix along with grasses. A lawn seed blend with clover is ideal for an all purpose, low maintenance lawn especially in poor soil. People wanting a more natural lawn maintenance regimen or people in areas affected by pesticide bans would likely benefit from adding clover to the lawn.

The number one most hated weed in America is the lowly dandelion. Where previous generations would make salads and wine with the dandelion, we now try our very best to eradicate it by all means necessary. A prolific reproducer, the dandelion is hated no doubt for its ability to entirely infest a lawn in little time.

Lawns of the past where usually a blend of grass species, clover, dandelion, and other plants but now that sort of variety is looked down upon and could even get you in trouble with local ordinances or home owners associations.

Dandelion is not seen as a plant that belongs anywhere and is cast aside in favor of repeated pesticide use or miserable hours plucking them out by their root. However, with weed-n-feed products banned in much of Canada many areas are getting used to their presence if not by choice by necessity. Can the dandelion find a place in a lawn owner's heart?

What is a dandelion anyway?

Easily recognizable by its yellow flower, white puffy seed head and distinct, jagged leaves, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a typical broadleaf weed emerging in the early spring with continuous flowering beginning several weeks later.

Dandelions can reproduce both from their taproot and by seed. This perennial weed will germinate from seed all season long and can be very persistent and competitive in a lawn. Dandelions can grow in most conditions and soil-types.

How do I control dandelions?

Spot treat with a broadleaf chemical herbicide containing triclopyr or a mix of MCPP, 2,4-D, and dicamba.

For most effective control, treat early in spring before the first generation goes to seed, continue to spot spray as needed throughout the season. Weed-n-feed products can also be effective dandelion killers but are outlawed in much of Canada and seen more and more as an irresponsible way to handle weed control.

Isn't there a more natural method for controlling dandelions?

Dandelions thrive in thin, weak turf so providing conditions favorable to turf growth is the best way to naturally control them. Practicing organic weed control in general is more about prevention than control. If the dandelions have gone to seed, collect lawn clippings to prevent spreading. They can be dug out by hand but in order to successfully dig them out, the majority of the root must be removed or they will re-grow. Practicing some common sense IPM can also go a long way towards dealing with dandelions.

Dandelions love soil with low calcium levels, low pH, and high potassium, so a common sense solution to avoid them would be to have your soil tested and ensure these levels are in balance by adding calcium and lime if necessary.

A major grievance about dandelions is their ability to travel. Their ubiquitous seeds float freely on the wind and your best efforts at keeping them off your lawn can easily be stymied by neighboring yards. Still, despite their tenacity, a healthy, lush lawn is the best way to prevent dandelion infestations.

Can you really eat dandelions?

Dandelions certainly have a longer history as an edible, nutritious plant than a lawn weed.

For centuries people have known the health benefits of ingesting dandelion. They are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and are known to have medicinal properties to treat everything from digestive disorders to eczema and arthritis.

Dandelion leaves are known to be slightly bitter and have a spicy quality similar to arugula. As such, they are great in salads, on sandwiches and steamed like any other leafy green. The root has been known to be used as a coffee substitute and the flowers are used in salads and as a garnish. There are many dandelion recipes including cream of dandelion soup, dandelion syrup, and dandelion wine.

Dandelions are best harvested in the spring when the shoots are young and tender. Avoid picking dandelions near roadsides or other areas where they may encounter pollution or pesticides.