I know what you're thinking… dandelions? Those noxious weeds that I can't seem to get under control? Why would I invite them into my garden?
Hear me out. Dandelions are a versatile plant that you can eat from root to tip. The flowers, leaves, and roots all have different culinary uses from fresh salads, to jelly to bread, and even wine.
Dandelion is also popular as an herbal medicine. It can be used as a diuretic, blood cleanser and laxative. As you might expect from a weed, they're relatively painless to grow. You might even find that when you stop battling the dandelion and let them in, you'll learn to appreciate the cheerful yellow blossoms in your garden.
So why consider growing dandelions – a weed that you've probably struggled to get rid of? The fact is, a weed is simply a plant growing where you don't want it to grow. Dandelions can be weeds but they can also be valuable garden plants, and many cultivars have a tidier growth habit and prettier appearance than the plant you're familiar with. Here's what you need to know about growing dandelions in your garden.
You'll find dandelions adapted to different locations all over the world. They're part of the genus Taraxacum, which consists of perennials with long tap roots and flower heads.
You can cultivate the common field dandelions that grow in your yard, but while they may be prolific, they aren't the best-tasting variety. Here are some other cultivars that will take your dandelion harvests up a notch.
- Amélioré à Coeur Plein (French Dandelion) – This variety yields an abundant crop in a compact space and is good for containers and urban plots. The leaves are delicate and tasty. Amélioré à Coeur Plein tends to blanch itself naturally, due to its clumping growth habit.
- Vert de Montmagny – Vert de Montmagny is a large-leaved, vigorous grower that matures early. It's considered to be the hardiest variety for cold areas.
- Pissenlit Coeur Plein – The French love dandelions and Pissenlit Coeur Plein is another variety from France. It's referred to as the Enhanced Heart variety because of its compact heart-shaped rosettes. This is a productive variety, and the thick leaves are well-suited for fresh salads and cooking. It does best in full sun.
- Italiko Red (Chicory) – This Italian variety is in the same family as dandelions, but a different genus that you might know as chicory. Italiko Red adds a beautiful red color to salads, and the leaves have excellent flavor. It's hardy and does well in cooler weather.
- Clio – Clio provides uniform, upright leaves that will produce continually all season for a cut-and-come-again crop. Less prone to bolting than some varieties.
- Red Dandelion – This bitter variety is best grown as a microgreen. You can harvest it after a few weeks and sow again for a continuous supply.
- Broad-leaved – Also known as the common dandelion. Just because it isn't the tastiest doesn't mean you should forget about it. The leaves are thick and not as tender or easily blanched, but they still have their uses. In rich soils, the roots will grow 7-feet deep. This native variety doesn't go to seed as quickly as French types and is slower to mature. It's best for cooked greens and making a coffee substitute from the roots.
How to Plant Dandelions
When and How to Plant
Growing dandelion isn't a challenge. Direct sow seeds outdoors after the danger of hard frost has passed in the spring, or in fall six weeks before the expected frost. Even though it is a tough perennial, the seedlings are tender and should be monitored like any other vegetable.
You can broad-sow the seeds since they are quite small. Toss them into a prepared bed and rake gently to cover with soil. Sow seeds shallowly, since they need light to germinate, in furrows that are a half-inch deep. Essentially, you want to re-create the conditions that happen when the seeds blow away off the head – deep enough that they stay in place, but not so deep that they can't get light.
When they're about 3-inches tall, thin them to 8 to 10-inches apart. The picked seedlings make a delectable salad addition, so don't toss them out.
You can seed your dandelions indoors in flats for transplanting. Plant seeds at a fourth to a half-inch deep in pots a few weeks before the last frost of the season in spring.
Plant outdoors when they are about 4 or 5-inches and developing true leaves. Don't transplant if you're growing for the root, however, because it will stunt growth. Either grow them in pots or start them outdoors.
Germination occurs in seven to twenty-one days, depending on the weather.
Leave 6-8 inches between plants and rows.
Where to Plant
Location is important. Like your strawberry and asparagus patches, dandelions need a place of their own to thrive. Choose a section of your garden where they can reside for many years without being disturbed.
Plants grow in full sun, part sun, or part shade. You might find the leaves are less bitter if you grow in some shade.
Dandelions grow in zones 3-10.
As the wild varieties prove, they aren't particularly fussy about the kind of soil they grow in. If you're growing dandelion for the roots, they'll do best in deep, rich, and moist soil.
Caring for Your Dandelions
You may be thinking that dandelions, being weeds essentially, do not need much care. While it is an advantage that dandelions are hardy perennials, you still want to give them some love in the garden.
Keeping the soil moist will encourage quality leaf production and protect dandelions from diseases. That said, they can handle some drought and only require water when the soil is parched.
An advantage of dandelions is that they tolerate a large range of soils and generally need little fertilizer. Add some well-aged compost annually, and that's it.
Weeding around your dandelions may sound like an oxymoron. However, new seedlings need to have room to become established so keep the weeds away by hand pulling.
Are you looking to improve the flavor of your dandelions? Blanching is the answer. Blanching means covering the plant and shading it from direct sunlight. This will give you tender leaves.
There are several ways that you can induce blanching. A few weeks before harvest, mound soil up around the plants like you might do potatoes. Or you can mound straw around and above the plants. Some people use cardboard boxes or containers to place over the leaves. You can also try growing them in shade for a natural blanching effect.
Problems That Affect Dandelions
Like other leafy greens, dandelion can get powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungus that causes the leaves to wither and degrade. You can identify it by white fuzzy spots on the leaves.
Mildew is especially common during times of high humidity. Make sure your plants are spaced adequately apart to allow for air circulation.
To prevent mildew, avoid top watering. Keep the soil moist using drip tape irrigation or saturation hose instead.
Ruby tiger moth
These caterpillars love to munch on dandelion greens. If you don't want to share your crop, pick them off and drown them in soapy water.
Slugs and snails also enjoy a dandelion snack. Use your favorite slug control method to keep the slimy critters away.
Best Companion Plants for Dandelions
Dandelion flowers attract a wide range of beneficial insects. Bees, hoverflies, and butterflies all enjoy the sweet nectar. Put dandelions near plants that flower such as beans, apples, clover, and tomatoes so they can enjoy the benefits.
Dandelions naturally produce ethylene gas which causes fruits to ripen. Handy when they are planted next to late tomatoes.
The dandelions tap roots are also a great benefit to surrounding plants. These roots can grow up to ten inches long and bring up valuable nutrients such as copper from deep in the soil. They also break up the hardpan in heavy soils making an easier path for your other vegetables to follow.
Scientists have proven that dandelions grown near other plants help prevent fusarium wilt. Fusarium is a nasty wilt that attacks a plant's root system.
Fusarium needs high levels of iron to survive. Dandelion roots produce cichoric acid which prevents the disease from accessing the iron in the soil.
Don't plant dandelion alongside corn or potato.
Harvesting and Storing
Harvest time depends on whether you're growing dandelions for the flowers, leaves or roots.
Dandelion grows slowly until established. Leaf harvest will be about ninety-five days after planting, flowers can be harvested in the early spring, and a plant requires a full year of growth for root harvest.
For the best tasting greens, pick them when they are young and tender before the plant has made buds or flowers. As soon as the plant begins to flower the leaves become darker green and more bitter.
Harvesting in the early morning or late evening will help you get more shelf life and less limp greens.
Store fresh greens in the vegetable crisper section of your refrigerator wrapped in a thin cotton towel. They'll last this way for about three days.
Did you know that dandelions make a great microgreen? They have a mildly bitter flavor that adds a punch when used to top soups or meats. If you're growing for microgreens, you can harvest in the early spring when the leaves are small.
Harvest the flowers in spring when the flower heads open, and you can still identify a “bullseye” of petals in the center of the blossom. You can use them fresh within a day or two, or dry the flowers in a warm, dry spot.
Roots can be harvested in the early spring of their second year when the plant is dormant if you are using them for culinary purposes. This is when they taste best. If you are harvesting the roots for medicine, dig them up in the fall when they contain the most nutrients.
To dig up roots, use a garden fork to loosen the soil around the roots, slowly working the plant up out of the ground. Shake it clean. You can use them fresh, or dehydrate them for storage.
Dandelions are extremely nutritious. They are packed full of Vitamins A, C, and vitamin B9. In addition, they are a good source of potassium and iron. All parts of the dandelion are edible.
Mix fresh greens in a gourmet salad with boiled eggs and potatoes, bacon and topped with croutons. Dandelion greens can be substituted in recipes or salads calling for arugula.
Or you can simply saute them in garlic.
They're also a good plant to add to your compost pile because of the nutrients they contain. Just make sure not to include any seed heads, or you will start a new patch.
I love dandelions because they are so versatile and I appreciate any plant that can give me food year round. I also love a plant that can be used in so many ways – fresh or cooked – it meets many of my recipe needs. Additionally, dandelion adds color to your dishes, from the bright red in Italian varieties to the beautiful yellow of dandelion flowers.