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Defending the dandelion

04/28/04 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) Commentator Henry Homeyer welcomes the flowers of spring, including dandelions, which, he says, aren't all bad.

(Homeyer) I love spring flowers, and plant many that bloom early. First come the snowdrops, small white bulb flowers that bloom in March, pushing through the hard, frozen ground. They're much tougher than their delicate leaves and dainty white flowers might appear.

Next come crocus in purple or gold, and the wonderful blues of scilla and glory of the snow. Soon these are followed by dwarf iris, primroses and the hellebores. Hellebores produce white or reddish 2-inch wide flowers above last year's bedraggled - but still evergreen - leaves.

Then come the wild flowers - hepaticas, dutchman's breeches, squirrel corn, blood root and trillium. And during the course of a hot sunny afternoon, BOOM, dozens of daffodils burst open.

But spring, for me, really arrives when the dandelions bloom. Dandelions are loved by some, hated by others. I'm of the first group, and I've never understood why some people feel obliged to pull or poison their dandelions. I've never even had a clue.

Americans love their lawns, and many feel that adding chemical fertilizer is not enough. They add chemicals to kill fungus, grubs, moss, bugs and weeds. They want a green expanse that looks just like the infield at Boston's Fenway Park.

I visited the chemical storerooms of Fenway with the groundskeeper some years ago, and the smell of toxins tickled my nose and made me flee as quickly as politeness allowed. But back to dandelions.

Who decided that dandelions are not suitable lawn ornaments? If we changed the name and called them daffodils, people would pay good money for their seeds! After all, a daffodil that would re-bloom after being mowed over would be worth a fortune. But because it shows up uninvited, many homeowners feel it is unworthy of space. It's an unwelcome guest.

But dandelions can provide benefits for your lawn. In new lawns with a heavy clay base, dandelions provide an important service: they penetrate the clay, pushing aside the soil with their tap roots, allowing moisture and air to penetrate.

And like most plants, their roots give off sugars, attracting beneficial fungi and bacteria. These beneficials are important for your grass plants, too. So they have good features in addition to their cheery yellow blossoms.

This winter I visited Mariquita Farms in Hollister, California. They GROW dandelions - as salad greens. Young leaves are tender and tasty, though a little more sharp than lettuce. They sell dandelion greens to high end restaurants like Chez Panisse, of cookbook fame.

Andy Griffin, the farmer, is strictly organic - he uses no chemicals - so he gets paid a premium price for his weeds. Andy told me that dandelion seeds are sold by Johnny's Seeds in Maine, but I don't believe that I'll need to order any. I can go outside and pick a few leaves for tonight's salad - and not worry about a thing.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist.
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