Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Dandelions

Saturday, May 06, 2017
Leonard Moorehead, GoLocalProv Gardening Expert

Few perennial herbs are better known than the humble dandelion. Their sunny golden yellow multi-petal bloom attracts children and reaches deep into the hearts of all that know them.  For some, they are unwelcome opportunistic colonizers of disturbed ground. Perhaps bright green turf is the ideal background for their fragrant single stem bloom. This wonderful contrast in color is the dandelion’s nemesis. In America, more acreage is devoted to home lawns than agriculture. Like moths attracted to the flame, the dandelion thrives in sunny locations others consider the realm of bright green turf. 

The dandelion endures despite broad leaf herbicides. All parts of the dandelion are edible, its deep single taproot, distinctive tooth-like jagged leaves and its bloom contain massive amounts of vitamins and minerals. Dent de Lion, anglicized from mediaeval French to dandelion is one of many common names in temperate regions around the globe. Perhaps one of the seven bitter herbs that sustained Moses in the desert for forty years, people have long known the dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. 

Dandelion’s place in ancient herbal therapy is solid, once known as a cure, it is often regarded as a curse. How low the mighty have fallen before the suburban lawn. 

No calendar trumps the dandelion’s presence. Dandelions announce spring with a smile. They thrive in sunny locations of marginal fertility. Their deep taproot retrieves nutrients leached from top soil into subsoil. Dried and roasted dandelion roots are best known as a coffee like steeped tonic. Their acerbic leaves are fine sources of anti-oxidant vitamins. One of their many folk names is to the French, pisenlit or wet the bed. Dandelions are powerful diuretic herbs. Their effect upon the liver and kidneys is to de-toxify and eliminate via the urinary tract. For the gleaners of the field, the dandelion offered the first fresh greens of the year. Many peasant cultures embrace the dandelion, local micro types are endemic throughout Europe. Despite our preference for sweetness, the dandelion is a tart reminder not all that is healthy is sugar coated. 

The dandelion flower opens at dawn and closes at dusk. Many plants include aviation as part of their life cycle and Dandelions’ spectacular seed head demonstrates flight better than most. Self-fertile petals bend and curl backwards to form miracles of spherical geometry. Every child recognizes their magic. So many of us have found their delicate spherical bloom and puffed. Some gardeners cannot resist the impulse to bend stiffer backs into more supple, simpler times. Each seed is aerodynamic. They float dreamlike on the wind, their fate unknown. Minute, the seeds are patient, capable of long dormancy until their resting place is disturbed and the cycle begins again. 

Humus rich soils are not their favored home. Their random flight is at odds with more docile seeds. Garden plots kept under mulch don’t offer much hope to the dandelion. Sometimes a stray plant will emerge among relatively mulch free perennials. No one notices their green foliage close to oriental poppies or pyrethrum daisies until the single bloom reaches skyward and releases a galaxy of seeds. Friable loose soils offer little defense for the dandelion’s deep tap root. A firm grip just beneath the soil and a tug pulls root and leaves free from the ground.  The harvested plant remains fresh in a pail of water until the leaves are shredded into a salad, like sorrel, a piquant surprise. The roots are easily dried in a 200 degree oven for long shelf life. 

There are more stationary spring harvests than the forager’s prized herbicide free dandelion. Asparagus relies upon bird flight to disseminate its red berry seed clusters. It’s easy to spot individual asparagus plants along roadsides. Gardeners are more cautious, we cultivate asparagus in beds, most commonly from two year old nursery grown root stock. Asparagus is native to estuaries and tidal zones in north- west Europe. As homage to their home range, asparagus thrives in moist humus rich soil. It tolerates salts better than most, a bit of sea salt sprinkled over their beds is beneficial; asparagus thrives under seaweed mulches. Their fernlike four foot talk stalks do best in full sun. Viable red seed clusters are eagerly consumed by birds, attentive gardeners pick and plant them among the older root stocks. Time is on our side, in a couple years the new plants will form new spears ready for harvest. 

Optimists and gourmets adore the asparagus. Or for some of us, the prospect of any dish served with Hollandaise sauce is always welcome. Cut an asparagus spear just beneath the permanent mulch with a sharp knife. The harvest carries over for a month, quit when the spears are less robust, allow the plant to recoup for the summer. Random spears will appear in summer months for surprise bonuses. Gentleness counts, the spears are easily broken. 

Whenever the dandelions bloom, the asparagus emerges. Vigor is apparent, visit the asparagus bed daily for quick growing harvest. Some inevitably escape notice and become tough and stringy to eat. Let them prosper and grow. Asparagus has a long life span and deserves a place in any garden. Bless those who plant for unknown future gardeners in community gardens. A patch in my hometown community garden produces bountiful crops far beyond their planter’s departure. 

Not for the home gardener the pencil thin juveniles of the market. Rather, at home in humus rich loam, sun loving asparagus spears are emphatic. Purple types become green with the merest cooking, for those pressed for time asparagus is best steamed for a couple minutes. Blanched white asparagus spears result from garden technique rather than plant type. If one prefers the white, chlorophyll free spears, mulch the asparagus bed heavily. Denied sunlight, the spears become green only in response to sunshine. 

Dandelions and asparagus are compass points in the spring garden. Accessible to all, enjoyed by the lucky few, they are certain to arrive for the first grass mowing. Birdsong greets their presence, for many, each contains a trace of magic. Magic in the diet is good for us. Fall under their charms. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees

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