Ask a Master Gardener: How do I get rid of dandelions?

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 5, 2014 

Garden Column: Dandelion

Dandelions are aggressive plants. They flourish in almost any condition, wet or dry; they have a highly efficient way of reproducing -- those parachute-like seed carriers, allowing seeds to be transported by the wind for miles -- and, to ensure survival, they have a branched tap root that can penetrate the soil several feet deep.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Question: What can I do about the abundance of dandelions in my yard?

Answer: Nothing says good weather more than those smiling yellow blossoms universally recognized as dandelions. Their early appearance makes it the first food for honeybees and bumblebees before the fruit trees blossom.

Dandelions are aggressive plants. They flourish in almost any condition, wet or dry; they have a highly efficient way of reproducing -those parachute-like seed carriers, allowing seeds to be transported by the wind for miles - and, to ensure survival, they have a branched tap root that can penetrate the soil several feet deep.

Topping all those qualities is the dandelion's ability to regenerate new plants from the root crown as well as from seed. It's got the bases covered!

So how to reduce dandelion abundance? Healthy lawns have fewer dandelions, but an occasional plant can establish a foothold. Hand remove them before they set seed, and remember to remove the entire plant, including the root crown.

Chemical controls pose unnecessary risk to the environment. Rather, think about how dandelions can help us. First, the young leaves are quite nice in a salad. Second, that long taproot helps break up clay and brings nutrients closer to the surface. And last, at least for me, the cheery brilliant yellow flowers always make me smile.

Q: My rhubarb is bolting, and it's never done it before. Does this hurt its ability to produce nice stalks? What can I do?

A: Before you do anything, take a minute to admire the blossom on your rhubarb plant. It is truly a knockout. It's the way rhubarb plants produce seed. There's no real harm in letting your plant flower, but if you, like me, love the taste of the stalks and want to have as many as possible, just cut the flowers off at the stem. Any stems that come with it are fine to eat.

There are a couple of things that can cause a rhubarb plant to bolt. One is age. Older plants tend to bolt more, which makes some sense as they need to fulfill their reproductive imperative. To solve that, in the fall divide your plants. You'll get more plants, and they'll be starting from the beginning, and much less likely to bolt.

Hot spells stress out rhubarb, so be sure to water. Also, they need regular fertilizer.

If you're just about ready to buy a rhubarb plant, know that some varieties of rhubarb flower more than others. Heirloom varieties are more prone than modern cultivars to produce flowers.

So don't stress about flowering rhubarb. Cut the flower, stick it in a vase and admire it as you chow down on strawberry rhubarb pie.

Q: We're making a landscape plan for our new house and property. Can you tell me what I can plant on our new septic mound?

A: You've entered the land of changing technologies, as I'm sure you're aware by the cost of your system. You may have the type of septic system known as the Glendon Bio Filter. Unlike more traditional septic field systems, it is designed to never be walked on.

Sharon Kettells, of Kettells Onsite Systems, is a system designer and cautioned that any plants on a Glendon mound must be shallowly rooted, including trees and shrubs. Some to avoid altogether are any type of willow, alder or poplar. Shallowly rooted and native grasses are a good choice, although whatever is planted needs to require little maintenance. You can (and should) legitimately ignore mowing duty.

Water any plants only the first year. After that, your plants should be able to manage on their own, and watering the mound puts undue stress on the system. Do not walk on it any more than necessary. It's an expensive system and needs to be treated carefully. Install no plants that need extensive care. Also, don't plant anything that you'll eat. It's NOT a good place for a vegetable garden!

I planted a combination of wildflowers and native grasses on our huge (and initially ugly) mound. In one year it was undistinguishable as a man-made mound, and nicely covered with flowers and grass. I haven't had to do anything to it since planting.

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go online to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.html.

Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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