Nice lawn, or food on the table…the choice is clear

Special to the VOICE

Gardens all over Pelham have morphed into a slow motion fireworks display of colour and blooms. Our attention has turned from snow shoveling to looking at the explosion of crocuses, tulips, daffodils, chives and hyacinths in our private and public gardens. One plant that is among the first to arrive on the scene is far less likely to garner admiration: the dandelion. These yellow-flowered spiky-leaved weeds are a visible blight on the soft green carpets we work so hard to cultivate.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong. What if we’ve made assumptions that these yellow flowers are noxious (if not to our bare feet, then at least to our sensibilities) when in reality they are helpful? What if these misunderstood flowers represent something more than conduits of childhood wish-making?

I grew up in a household of dandelion defiers, as was the norm in the ‘80s. Spraying was routine, with the requisite lawn sign stating the chemical du jour. By the time my spouse and I had our first home, environmental stewardship had gained more widespread acceptance and appeal. In part thanks to environmental advocates like David Suzuki, making choices to harm the earth less was gaining momentum. Even though our home at the time was a lawn-free Toronto condo, our frame of mind around lawns was forming.

By the time we had our own lawn, a roomy 50×150 feet of green, we knew our priorities —no chemicals. But those dandelions? They still had to come out. After all, it was practically a civic responsibility. None of our neighbours were going to appreciate these yellow blooms spreading seed on their lawns.

One neighbour, an entrepreneur and professional landscaper, had a different perspective. While we were attempting to manually remove dandelions from our rather large front yard, he questioned the value in all of that wasted energy: they’re native to the area; they’re not harmful; and they bloom, seed, and wither away in a fairly short period of time.

“Just leave them,” he said. “You’re lawn will be fine.” With two, and soon to be three kids, and very little time, we did. And he was right.

Our lawns are our own and we get to decide how we would like to care for them, including using approved sprays, hand-picking dandelions, or leaving them be. It is worth reflecting, however, that even if eco-friendly “natural” chemicals are coming on the market, there is still a strong argument for leaving the ecosystem alone. As one of the first blooms to emerge after winter, dandelions provide much-needed food for bees.

The plight of the bees has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. Renee Delaney, social enterprise entrepreneur and local bee advocate, describes bees as one of the canaries in the coal mine. Spraying with neonicotinoids and other chemicals harms them, and every other animal that relies on their pollination. By their very definition, there are no “safe” pesticides and herbicides. With declines in the bee population, entire colonies being wiped out by Colony Collapse, and their habitats eliminated or greatly reduced, it is important to consider going one step further: leaving our lawns in more natural states is, simply, good for the bees. And by extension, it is good for us.

There is a rather handy benefit in being an environmentally inclined lawn owner and mother of three: being lazy with lawn care is actually bee-friendly. At a time when the effort to make the right choices can be overwhelming, deliberate eco-friendly laziness is really (really) appealing. I cannot think of a single other example where not doing something can do so much.

The additional benefits of dandelions extend to more personal perks too: the entire dandelion plant, from roots to bloom, is edible. It is used in salads, teas, and even wine. Although I have only gone so far as to pay for grocery store dandelion leaves in my mixed green salads, the thought of making my own dandelion tea has a bit of pioneer appeal to it. And despite strongly leaning towards grape wine, I find it amusing to imagine a shift in Niagara’s vineyards to dandelion-yards: naturally pesticide- and herbicide-free, with a focus on rabbit-proofing instead of bird control.

Dandelion is classified as an herb, and has had an illustrious history as a revered medicinal plant. More recent studies suggest that dandelion extract may be beneficial for digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and inflammation, and a preliminary study out of the University of Windsor demonstrates that dandelion may have anti-cancer potential.

Even with all these reasons to leave dandelions alone, the pressure to keep a lawn dandelion-free can be intense. It’s hard for me not to cringe at the thought of passersby noticing our lawn dotted with dandelions. Further, our willful neglect has a direct impact on our neighbour’s lawns, and on the impression we are giving neighbourhood dog walkers. I chatted with my sister about this conundrum and was reminded that she willfully leaves her dandelions free to grow.

“It’s embarrassing,” she says. “It’s an eyesore. An absolute eyesore for two weeks.” Then she reveals, “But after that, our lawn doesn’t look any different than our neighbours’.”

I’m an imperfect environmentalist. I drive my car daily. I use hot water in my laundry. I have more plastic in my home than I want. A lot of otherwise perfect food gets over-ripe and unceremoniously dumped into the green bin. I’m a work in progress. Reducing my footprint on the earth is a priority —a messy, guilt-inducing, passion-igniting, hope-filled priority. This, and the potential positive impacts on the bee population and human health, make me square my shoulders, take a deep breath, and embrace the dandelion. Until it threatens to go to seed. Then I pull out our dandelion removal tool and make removing them a passionate priority. As Margaret Atwood’s character says in The Blind Assassin, “Unlike [my sister], I haven’t got the courage of my convictions.”

Perhaps I ought to have as much compassion for myself as I do for the bees. To paraphrase zero-waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau, we don’t need a handful of perfect environmentalists; we need one million imperfect ones. So, with great imperfection, and fluctuating social courage, I’m taking one for the bees because the health of the earth is important to me. And in this over-busy world, Renee Delaney’s words resonate: “Life is too short to get bent out of shape by a little yellow flower.”

I guess, in the end, it’s about doing right, or at least heading in the right direction. For our kids. For the earth. And for myself. It’s about focusing more on the things that really matter, and less on the things that don’t. Ultimately, if eco-friendly lawn care required more effort, it would still be a choice I would make because it is one step among a long list of potential steps that we can take to right some of the damage we, collectively, have done. I intend to move towards more and more sustainable, earth-friendly ways of living. Until then, I will appreciate what dandelions represent.

If 20 years from now my kids asked me what we did to try to right the imbalance that is happening with the health of the earth, I’ll say I left the dandelions for the bees. At least until other sources of food emerged in the garden. I’ll know that although I was (and always will be) imperfect, I did, among other things, steel my courage to let bees pollinate on those first dandelions of the season. I take this as a big personal step to re-prioritize, and to, for once, not do a thing. And I pray that whatever else we can resolve to do will be enough.