Now that we’ve legitimately dug out from our mild Minnesota winter, and are digging in to our growing season, there are three things — as a long-time landscaper — that I tell anyone who asks.
I see many fellow gardeners mix compost into soil to a depth of between 6 inches and a foot. But you need to double that if you want to improve your yield. Why? Roots will grow either along the surface, or down deep. And they’ll take a cue from how much worthwhile space you give them. Unless you have a very large yard for growing, I recommend digging compost into the ground to a depth of between two and three feet. When you treat dirt well, magic happens. In one case, hop vines we planted after double digging grew 12 feet in a single season.
After your original compost mixture is created, you will only need to add compost as topsoil for your gardens in the spring.
2) If your soil is sandy, add clay.
It makes sense, yes? Clay retains moisture. If your soil is sandy or loamy, it needs clay mixed in. Combine the clay with compost before spreading, and your garden will have what it needs. You can find clay-infused soil via Craigslist.
3) Love your weeds.
Like Eeyore said, “A weed is a flower too, once you get to know it.”
I have re-dubbed Dandelions (taraxacum) as Terrific Lions. They are one of several edible weeds that, in fact, provide food, medicine, and soil fertility. They work particularly well alongside tomatoes and other shallow rooted crops, and you don’t have to take care of them like you do most other items in your carefully nurtured garden.
In an abandoned lot, for example, nature sends the dandelion in to do what we cannot: drive roots into the ground in order to enable minerals and other nutrients deep into the earth, to be accessible to other shallow roots that can then grow there. Dandelion roots also help drive water and air into the soil, increasing the capacity for root depth and allowing water to enter the water table instead of simply rushing off into the street to do damage to our local creeks, rivers and lakes.
The super powers of dandelions includes providing habitat for our essential bees and butterflies.
And they are super edible for humans – not simply as Ray Bradbury’s nostalgic bottle of dandelion wine — but by offering a kick to our plates more than even spinach or kale. We tend to think real food only comes from grocery stores, but dandelions can provide our diets with iron, and with vitamins A, C, and K. Its root teas are used to detoxify the liver. Many organic stores, farmer’s markets and CSAs, and herbalists carry roots of dandelion.
How to Use Dandelions
Like so many things we’ve discarded in the past for lack of understanding the value of nature, dandelions are with us for a reason. But you need to know how to make use of them.
- For best results, many recommend taking them from your backyard when they’re still young and tender – before flowering – generally in early spring, when their flavor is sweet and mild.
- Never use dandelions that have been sprayed with pesticides. That means ignoring wild ones near roadways, train tracks and telephone poles that might have been treated with weed killer.
- A fact about greens: The greener the leaf, the higher the food value.
- As flower buds develop and blossom, dandelion greens can become too bitter to eat. Click for tips on how to harvest and clean.
From Treehugger’s list of 9 edible weeds: “While the smaller leaves are considered to be less bitter and more palatable raw, the bigger leaves can be eaten as well, especially as an addition to a green salad. If raw dandelion leaves don’t appeal to you, they can also be steamed or added to a stir-fry or soup, which can make them taste less bitter. The flowers are sweet and crunchy, and can be eaten raw, or breaded and fried, or even used to make dandelion wine. The root of the dandelion can be dried and roasted and used as a coffee substitute, or added to any recipe that calls for root vegetables.”
- How to make dandelion wine
- Dandelion salad
- Sauteed dandelion greens, by Epicurious
- A great collection of dandelion recipes
Other Plants We Should Learn to Love
Creeping Charlie, (Glechoma hederacea)
I learned of the magnetic and magical appeal of this plant, especially for autism, from a landscaping client. The swing set in her backyard is a preferred hangout for her daughter, who has high mercury content in her blood. As an herbalist my client, Lise Wolf, knew that plants are attracted to creatures that they can help heal and nurture. After she noticed the Creeping Charlie in her backyard was growing seemingly haphazardly toward her daughter’s swing set – even climbing the supports of the swing – she learned that in Europe Creeping Charlie is used to treat lead poisoning. Lise now uses it to treat the mercury levels in her daughter, and other children.
Butterflies and bees seem to know what is good for them (although studies are finding they can get unhealthily addicted to some of the insecticides we’re feeding them) — and our pollinators, responsible for one-third of our food, love what I think we should start calling Good-Time Charlie.
Lamb’s Quarters, Wood Sorrel, Burdock, Chickweed, Violets, Daylillies, Garlic Mustard, Milk Thistle, Plantain, Purslane, and Nettle are a few of the other heroes of health that grow freely all around us here in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Let’s see beauty, life, and nourishment wherever we can.
For more other beneficial plants at our feet that we denigrate as weeds, visit my Giving Tree Gardens Seed blog.