Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Why Do You Hate These Flowers?

Late winter/early spring in Central Texas brings forth the beautiful bounty of the dandelion. Every year, garden centers are flooded with folks who are bound and determined to eradicate these weeds from their lawns. For decades, I have been part of the system that pushes herbicides, both pre and post emergent, to aid in this endeavor. Now I find my rebel self asking, "why?"

Through one of the most proficient marketing strategies known to man, rivaling that of the genius De Beers diamond campaign, the idea of a mono-crop culture of a single, non-native green space has become our norm. We dump billions of dollars and tons of harmful chemicals into keeping our little squares of lawn. We waste water at an obscene rate and profoundly damage our vital pollinator populations in this quest. Again- why?

I get it; who doesn't like to have a neat looking yard? Our HOA's (a soapbox I will save for another day) require it. We envision our kids running barefoot through the sprinkler and our Labradors bounding gleefully, ball in mouth, across our green spaces.
What if I told you that you could have that, minus the chemicals, Herculean effort, and money pit if we just change our mindsets a little bit? Consider the hubris of thinking we need, or can even achieve, this much control over nature. We can not. We should not. The cost is far too high.

What about the emergence of dandelions triggers our disgust? They are the first source of food for our populations of critically important pollinators. They don't have painful sticker seed heads. They are just little yellow flowers in our lawn. Do you remember picking them and holding them under your chin to make your face glow? Do you remember plucking the airy, magical seed heads and blowing a wish into the wind? Find that feeling and hold onto it as you read. Remember a time when nature was inspiring and magical. When did we trade that for a doggedly determined desire to bend nature to our will?

I would argue that that spirit was squashed through the brilliant marketing of the chemicals required to achieve a mono-crop, nonnative green-space; the current American Lawn. Having a hybrid St Augustine lawn (or Bermuda, Zoysia, fill in the blank) is not going to work without spending money. Chemical companies like it when we spend money, so millions of dollars go into advertising every year to make sure we do just that to keep our green squares free of yellow flowers.

You want a green lawn space. So do I. But perhaps we can redefine what that looks like and save money, time, water resources, our pollinators, our aquatic life, and eliminate the toxic chemicals? This can be achieved, and it does not mean you rip up your lawn and replace it with rocks.

Start with adjusting your expectations. Why do you need a single crop of non-native grass? You don't. By having a lawn that is comprised of native turf species, you can have your lush green space without the bad stuff. For Central Texas, I love Thunder Turf, a blend of native grasses from Native American Seed. It is beautiful, super low maintenance, and requires little, if any, supplemental water, unlike thirsty non-native grasses. By just replacing your grass with turf like this, you are doing better all around, right out of the gate.

Resist the temptation to go to Defcon 1 if you see a dandelion. So what if you have a crop of them spring up? Let them make flowers, enjoy them, let the bees enjoy them, then mow them down when the rest of the grass is awake and growing. I know this idea is a little radical, but I am not known as a horticultural rebel for falling in line with the protocols that the big chemical companies push. If you see some broad-leaf weeds pop up, chill.

Use an organic pre-emergent like corn gluten, early in the spring and again in the fall to keep a handle on weeds. If you do this, and do it at the right time, you can keep weeds at bay without the high toxicity of the weed and feed chemicals. Do not use those. Please. There is nothing horticulturaly correct about those products. Sure, knocking out weeds and feeding the grass in one bag sounds nice, but all you are doing is killing the existing weeds, the ones that you see on the day of application, and feeding your lawn with a synthetic fertilizer at the wrong time of year. The broad-leaf herbicides in those product kill trees. It does not happen over night- it can take years for an established tree to show damage, but eventually, it will. For newly planted trees, the damage can manifest much more quickly. The synthetic fertilizer is like a shot in the arm. You may see a quick greening, but it is in and out of the soil in a week or two, depending on the temperature. The use of these products is so ingrained in our psyche that even seasoned nursery professionals still recommend them. I sure did. I sold tons, literally tons, one 40# bag at a time. I was wrong.

If you are fighting sticker burs- this is Texas, and they are awful- try the pre-emergent approach. Try a mechanical method to rid yourself of them. You can drag carpet over the yard and pick up many of the seeds. If you are vigilant, eventually you will get a handle on them.

And never, ever, ever use herbicides of any kind if you are near water or if your lawn is above water, like on a hill that leads down to a river or lake. They are so incredibly toxic to aquatic life, and our water systems are already struggling.

Establish a native species lawn. Use organic lawn fertilizer and make sure you include microbiology. Water mindfully. Do not over water just because your sprinkler guy said to set it at 15 min a day every day at 4 in the morning so no one sees you do it. Make informed decisions about the products you use without buying into the idea that you need to spread chemicals because the big sign at the Box Store says so. And, most importantly, breathe. If you see a pretty yellow flower poke its head up in February, say, "Hello, there, little guy. Welcome. Feed the bees."

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