Tag Archives: Dandelion

A dandelion by any other name…

For a time, I worked as a school garden coordinator for Central Lake Schools. On one of our walks back to the classroom, a student pointed to a flower and asked for the name. Rather than answer immediately, I asked the student to think instead about how the plant functions within its own ecosystem. He said, “How am I supposed to know?”

Good question!

How are we supposed to know, without looking up the answers each time we stop to observe a plant, how that plant functions within its own polyculture?

Carefully, we uprooted the plant. It had a deep taproot, it was growing on the edge of a heavily-traversed footpath, its leaves were broad and low to the ground, it flowered and was attracting bees.

Several questions were answered in that short period of observation. Answers that would eventually lead us to make more difinitive conclusions about how this plant functioned within its own ecosystem, and how it might benefit the garden space.

We didn’t uncover all there was to know in that simple process; there may be chemical or biological interactions happening that we are not able to observe with the naked eye. Rather, we uncovered some key elements that might help us answer the more intricate questions.

When the boy asked what the plant was called, I could have easily answered “dandelion,” but the lesson wasn’t one in nomenclature. It was a lesson in learning to discern, through observation, some key elements about a plant or any other thing, and more importantly, the realization that learning how to find an answer is often more valuable than the answer itself.


Why weeds matter

By definition, a weed is any plant that crowds out cultivated plants.  In nature, plants will only crowd out other plants when the environment is altered and one plant is deprived of some nutrient or gained by another.  While we tend to think of forests as stationary ecosystems, they’re always moving.  As we see in succession, when one layer of pioneer plants has amassed enough biomass to sustain a perennial herb layer, the grasses move in and “crowd out” the pioneers.  As more biomass is generated at the top-soil layer by the bundled root-systems of the perennial grasses, the shrub layer encroaches followed by the shorter, then taller trees.  With each step, we see a more complex ecosystem unfolding until the web of biodiversity is strong enough to sustain minor alterations.  

“Weeds” or those plants we have labeled weeds, contribute to biomass, cultivation, offer a food source for beneficial insects and play a part in the development of the ecosystem.  And in many cases, those plants we’ve labeled “weeds” are far more beneficial than the plants we’ve cultivated.  Dandelions, for example, are completely edible, hold nutrients from the soil and redistribute these nutrients at the end of the life-cycle, are insectary, and offer humans some medicinal value.  Grass, on the other hand, prevents erosion and provides biomass, but otherwise, isn’t very useful to humans, doesn’t attract beneficial insects and takes in more nutrients than it contributes.

The universe in a weed

If ever you’ve gazed upon a fully ripe dandelion; ready for the next big gust of wind or the aid of a small child eager to watch seeds carried into the sea of air around them; then you may have noticed the tail of each seed resembles a star and that when clustered together (much like this major run-on sentence), it resembles a tiny universe.  

The biggest lesson I’ve received from observing the natural world, is that everything mimics a larger system.  The smallest atoms with electrons revolving around an nucleus mimic the planets in orbit around the sun.  The laws of succession which produce nutrient-rich top-soil are mirrored by the same process over time in our universe with dead stars giving birth to matter which later forms new stars and new planets.  There’s always some reflection of ourselves or our garden or in the largest of imaginable places that resembles the smaller, that takes on the characteristics of another system within a system within yet another system.  The further out we head from tiny atoms to the great expanse of our own universe, we begin to see how each thing is connected and most importantly, it reminds us that we are a part of everything.

How to Build a Fruit-centered Guild (Pt2)

Once you have built a healthy layer of topsoil, wait a while (like months) while the materials break down and the heat isn’t so intense as to devour the roots of early-plantings.  Guild-building is a long project for forward-thinkers.  It can be frustrating in that folks who visit our backyard experiment often give us perplexed looks, seeing mostly circular raised beds dotting the landscape.  “Give it a year,” I tell them.

We began our guilds in June, but this week we will begin planting bulbs for spring.  The bulbs sit higher in the soil and won’t be heavily impacted by the heat rising up from the composting manure.  [If you’ve never stuck your hand in composting manure, (and you probably haven’t) it’s HOT.   When sifting through manure to remove larger rocks, the rocks would surprise us with their heat.  I dropped one it was so warm.  Like a hot potato (covered in poo).]

I digress…   The bulbs are nice because they’ll give you something to enjoy next spring.  Beautiful large blooms to squelch any unwarranted criticism from family and friends.  AND they double as grass-suppressors, hopefully they’re edible or maybe they deter ground-rodents and deer.  The other important element of a  fruit-centered guild is that whatever you choose to plant, the roots and functions must be considered carefully.

The roots of a fruit tree extend out one and a half times the diameter of the tree.  If you are planting an apple tree, consider the size of the tree once it reaches maturity and adjust your guild-size accordingly (you can always add on later, if necessary).  As mentioned earlier, what to plant within your guild depends a lot on the roots and functions of the plants you wish to include within your guild.  There are many kinds of bulbs available, but which bulbs offer the most functionality within the guild?  Consider:

  • which insects/animals these plants attract or deter
  • whether or not any part of the plant is edible
  • the plant’s vigor and whether or not it will spread
  • pH  requirements
  • the type of root system and where it falls relative to the fruit tree
  • when the plant takes in the most nutrients/water
  • how and where the plant stores nutrients
  • yields and value to humans, medicinal value, environmental impact/value

A dandelion, for example offers a deep taproot that won’t “compete” for nutrients from the tree; it breaks open and oxygenates the soil; it has edible and medicinal roots and leaves and it absorbs a higher level of CO2.  Comfrey also has a deep taproot, enormous medicinal value, and stores a high concentration of nutrients in its leaves, so it can be mulched in place and makes a terrific fertilizer.  Daffodils are grass-suppressors (they keep the grass roots away from our beloved tree roots); they take in the majority of nutrients in the spring (before the tree); and they deter deer and rodents, but attract beneficial insects to our guilds.

These are just some examples.  We’ll talk more about the specific plantings later in our third installment.  For now, start thinking about roots and plant functions.  Think about the sort of things you would like to grow and research their various functions.  Also consider nearby trees.  Some trees, like the black walnut, are allopathic to neighboring trees and will deter healthy growth.

Keep in mind, I’m not an expert in permaculture, I’m a student.  There’s a lot to learn and as the old adage goes, if you’re not killing some of your plants, you’re probably not learning anything new.

In healing we may teach others and in teaching, we may heal.