Lessons from the Dandelion

Posted on May 17, 2010


I guess it started about five years ago. I noticed the dandelions on our lawn were bigger, their roots stronger and deeper. Local laws concerning the sale and use of weed killer had changed, but never much of a lawn fanatic, I was unaware of the new regulations. I’d always tolerated dandelions, and if suddenly struck with an urge to have a more lush lawn, I’d go out and pull the weeds by hand. One year I noticed the dandelions weren’t going quietly. Their roots were holding on stubbornly. We got one of those little weed pluckers, the kind that looks like a long screwdriver. The dandelions fought back, but almost always lost the battle.

A year or two after that, the weeds appeared to be bigger. Their stems were thick and each plant had seven or eight flowers. They were showing up earlier, and hanging around longer. Last year we bought the top-of-the-line weed plucker. It has a long handle and a thing you step on and five or six claws that close around the plant and allow you to pull it out in one piece. It looks like something you’d use to extract a shark’s back molar. (I can’t imagine why you’d want to extract a shark’s molar, but if the situation ever arises, we’ll be ready.) For the most part, the thing worked.

Last year, that is.

This spring, in early May, the lawn was already covered with bright yellow flowers and enormous dandelion leaves. Many of the plants were twelve inches in diameter. The top-of-the-line weed plucker has met its match. These things aren’t coming out. Their roots look like white carrots. When I mow the lawn most of the dandelions duck, avoiding the blade, and within a day they’re popping back up. I’m pretty sure I can hear them laughing. They know they’ve won. I try to pull them out, but they seem to multiply faster than I can subtract.

I was confused for a while, until I began to notice the fields of dandelions. They’re everywhere. Acres of dandelions within a mile or two of our house, and in every direction, so no matter which way the wind blows, those seeds will be headed our way. I took the photo above on May 16. I don’t know how many dandelions are in the picture, but I’d guess around a million. And that field is just one of hundreds within a fifty-mile radius of our house. They seem to be taking over, these mosquitoes of the soil. I’m a little nervous.

Then again, I’m also impressed. My wife and I work hard at growing flowers, plants, trees, and vegetables. We usually get fairly good results, but only after a lot of raking and fertilizing and watering and weeding. And even then, we get no grapes and no peppers. Last year we produced a few cucumbers and quite a lot of tomatoes, as well as an excellent basil crop. But as I said, they were the result of conscious and consistent effort. The dandelions are flourishing with no help from anyone. They just appear. We don’t give them fertilizer or water. We don’t assist them by pulling out the surrounding grass or plants that compete with them for nutrients. They spread at will and grow stronger every year.

Meanwhile, our weed pluckers sit quietly in the shed, defeated and dejected. Commiserating with the leaf blower and the thatcher, they’ve joined the ranks of Tools We’ll Never Use Again.

Maybe there’s something we can learn from dandelions. They’re persistent. You can hack them to pieces and they grow back. They ask for nothing. They’re on their own, doing what they need to do. If nothing else, they succeed, and they do so without praise, encouragement, or appreciation of any kind. I sit here at my computer and think about the dandelions now surrounding our house, and I respect them. Admire them, even. Of course, when I go outside later and see how they’ve tripled in number since yesterday, I’ll hate them again.

But I don’t think they’ll care.