Posted by: lialeendertz | October 15, 2010

Dandelion lawn


Dandelion roots about to meet their maker


It’s autumn, so it’s time for ‘garden experts’ that offer ‘advice’ in ‘national newspapers’ and the like to tell you to feed your lawn. Phosphates encourage root expansion, and a dose now sees roots burrow down deep throughout winter, to better support those hard-working blades come next year. I can understand why one might reach for the ‘weed n feed’ at the garden centre.

So it also seems the perfect moment to have a bit of a rant about fertilisers. I reckon they have to be the next ‘peat’ in terms of gardeners coming to realise that the benefits they are getting aren’t worth the damage they are doing. Here, from a post on Mark Diacono’s blog (sparked, rather neatly, by an early post on this blog) is a recipe for nitrogen fertiliser:

“For 1 tonne of nitrogen fertiliser. You will need:

– 1 tonne of oil
– 108 tonnes of water

and as well as your tonne of nitrogen fertiliser you will produce 7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases in the process. And as it breaks down nitrogen fertiliser releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.”

It’s terrifying stuff, and it seems incredible that gardeners rely on it without much clue as to how it’s made. I even reviewed a ‘Self-Sufficiency’ book recently for Gardens Illustrated that included a picture of pushing plugs of fertiliser pellets into pots. It’s possibly the least ‘self-sufficient’ thing you can do, gardening-wise, but I guess it shows the extent to which it isn’t considered an issue.

The story with phosphates is slightly different. Our agriculture is dependent on phosphate fertilisers derived from phosphate rock, a finite source which we are charging through at a rate of knots. The UK imports 206,000 tons per year from 4 north African countries. At current use there is about 30 years global supplies left, after which, essentially, we’re all up that rather unpleasantly named creek.

It seems a little daft to be sprinkling it on our lawns. I tried a while ago to find a sustainable, organic alternative to autumn lawn and tree fertilisers in response to a question from a Guardian reader and entirely failed, but during my search I stumbled upon a little gem of information. Dandelion roots are extremely rich in phosphates. It seems so logical once you know it: those fierce, indefatigable, infuriating roots – of course they must contain the absolute essence of rootiness! The very stuff of root itself! So here’s another, nicer recipe from me:


Some dandelions (as many as you can find)

Some water

A bucket

Dig up the dandelions. I’ve snapped off the leaves of mine to make them as purely phosphate as possible, without a hint of leafy nitrogen, but that’s possibly unnecessary. Chop them up into small bits, pour on water and leave for a few weeks. Strain off (the roots may even be dead enough to go onto the compost heap, but I never told you that. If unsure, dunk ’em in water for another few weeks first), dilute and water onto your lawn, trees and bushes, or anything that you want to encourage to develop a strong root system. Feel chuffed, if possibly very slightly smug, that you have fertilised your garden from the ultimate renewable source (well I’ve never managed to kill one) and without the teeniest recourse to distant fast-depleting mines.


  1. Thank you. Thank you a lot.

  2. I dont bother feeding or treating my ‘lawn’ as when I did I was left with a black mess as most of it is moss. Instead I have learnt to embrace my multi-cultural ‘lawn’ and to be honest I think it looks far more attractive than the manicured lawns. I like the idea of your dandelion feed but dandelion are the one thing that isnt growing in my ‘lawn’!

  3. This is a genius idea, and a fabulous post to highlight the problems with fertilizers (I love the recipe!). Bird poo (guano) is also rich in phosphates, so can also try and encourage birdies into your garden over the winter to help feed the soil 🙂

  4. I once watched a film about the lives of people living next to a factory that produced fertilisers. The level of environmental damage caused by the factory to the town was astonishing and I think one man killed himself (I know it was only a film, but it was very hard-hitting).

    Thank you – again – for raising a very important issue. I just chucked a load of seaweed meal on my lawn, not for any reason other than the bag wouldn’t fit in my shed after I’d crammed all my garden furniture into it. But if I ever get serious about lawn fertilisation I will definitely try dandelions. Ta x

  5. This is the first time I’ve regretted not having more dandelions. The soil in my garden is so poor, I’ve cosseted the ones I have and have rejoiced in their blobs of brightness, especially on gloomy days.

    But I’m left with a worry. I didn’t use anything except home-made compost and leaf mould (and that’s slowly making a huge difference) with occasional doses of liquid seaweed for tomatoes etc.) until I read Toby Buckland’s book about gardening. After that, I bought a packet of granular plant feed for our wilting Christmas tree. It didn’t seem interested in ‘proper’ compost. I suppose there aren’t many carrots and cabbages breaking down in pine forests. But it liked the grains a lot (looks like dry cat food!) Should I not have bought the feed? (8% Nitrogen. 8% Phosphorous, 8% Potassium).


  6. Great post Lia and seeing it’s Blog Action Day for water, I need to also mention that it’s not only your original ‘recipe’ that’s so damaging, the runoff from their use into our streams and rivers etc. also has major environmental consequences too.

    I’ve stopped treating my lawn and am now a proud owner of a ‘jewel lawn’ so stuffed full of dandelions etc. it delighted my niece at the weekend as she could take plenty of leaves home as a treat for her 2 guinea pigs!

  7. Good reminder of the true cost of some of those granular feeds that get pushed at gardeners. And what a great use for dandelions! I’ll remember that if I ever get a garden with a lawn again. I’ve gradually removed mine over the years to make room for more plants and a pond.

  8. I do wonder if we need any fertilisers at all, anywhere in the garden? Of any kind? Growing herbaceous plants harder and meaner means no staking, at least in our patch.

    Just recycle it all by cutting down green material in situ and let it rot as mulch.

    Can’t answer for veggies but worth experimenting, I’d think? Anyone? Love to hear results.

  9. Dandelion leaves + chickens = eggs + phosphate rich manure.

  10. Lovely post. And v interesting from Anne especially. Shifting to mainly perennials is a big way of reducing nutrient inputs, but growing green manures and nitrogen fixers/mineral acccumulators will still be a sensible idea for keeping the available nutrient levels up. Wee, of course, is a fine source of many of those necessary nutrients…now I’m getting a blog in my head but will try to resist.

    Fab post.

    Of course, we could just get rid of (almost) all lawns…

  11. Thanks, Mark.

    But you’re not telling me there aren’t a myriad of tiny creatures dependent on them after all the time that we have been cultivating them.

    Just stop feeding, weedkilling and generally messing about and they have an enormous amount to offer. As in..

    Picnic, anyone?

  12. Great post, thanks.
    I admit that I’m far from being an experienced gardener but I don’t use any fertilisers on anything in my garden (with no issues….so far!) because I find the the thought of potential environmental damage really frightening!

  13. I don’t use chemical fertilisers, never have done & never will, but I use organic instead (dried cow dung pellets) in my potager, on the roses and on me bulbs. Don’t need to fertilise the lawn as I just have a bit of grass with moss, daisies and dandylions in it and it has survived for yonks without any feed whatsoever.

    For most of my garden I just bung mulch on, and lots of it. Sorted!

  14. Thursday – no problem

    patientgardener – sorry to hear you havent got any dandelions! What a blow…

    Emma – Thanks so much. When I was hunting for an organic alternative, guano was one of the things that came up. I like your idea of just encouraging birds to poo in the garden, but I do think importing guano has it’s own whole set of problems. This is most probably a whole ‘nother post tho…

    Kate – Thanks for that information. I think it’s so easy to overlook all this gruesome stuff when things are sold to us all neat and bright and clean.

    Esther – I love the colour of dandelions too. It does sound like you’ve been using a chemical fertiliser, yes. I imagine you should use it up as you’ve got it, or perhaps not, considering VP’s comment below yours (can anyone else advise on this?) but look for those marked ‘organic’ in future.

    Janet – but also, you can use it on all other plants, especially trees, shrubs etc…which you want to have good roots, so dont think you’re off the hook.

    Anne – certainly, it’s a very good point, that if you make the plant system robust enough and the soil good enough you can do without.

    Mark – thanks, glad you like, especially as a chunk of it was by you. I am with Anne though on lawns. Where are you going to kick a ball, or lie, or picnic without a lovely lawn?
    But please dont resist the wee blog.

    Viki – I think that’s really great, and I’m chuffed if you’ve come to that conclusion fairly early in your gardening. I think it’s easy for those just starting out to think they have to buy the weed n feeds and what have yous, but you dont.

    Yolanda – well done missus, sounds marvelous.

  15. Esther…excuse me buting in…but if your soildis low in nutrients to dtart off with you may need to give it a good nudge to get it productive…compost is the best thing for maintaining and replenshing nutrients on a year by year basis but if you want to nudge things up from a low base you’ll need to use green manures, comfrey tea and other liquid feeds etc (as Lia’s recipe!). If you’ve got a manmade feed already then Id use it – to throw it away would be to waste the energy that’s gone into making it – but then maybe consider other ways of maintaining nutrients. Hope that helps

  16. Thank goodness Anne flagged up this post to me…I was about to sprinkle all sorts of stuff over and only didn’t because I was trying to find something that wouldn’t hurt the frogs. …it’s utterly brilliant – I love my dandelions but I can certainly spare a few!
    Thanks Lia for opening my eyes…I feel enlightened

  17. Lia and Mark – Thanks for the response.

    Although this feed is in the form little nuggetty things, the packet does say it’s organic.

    Mark – I did try to use ‘proper’compost but had to lay it on the surface and hope watering would take the goodness down because the tree is in a pot full of roots and is too big to transplant to anything except the ground . . . I’ve been trying to find it a new home! But something which puzzles me a lot is how far a plant or tree can benefit from alien compost. In a pine forest, there wouldn’t be the same kind of naturally forming compost as in a deciduous one. I’d decided that might be why the compost mulch didn’t work for the Christmas Tree when the granular feed did.


  18. Wonderful. My sister wrote a great post on our blog about the benefit of dandelions as dynamic accumulators for the surrounding soil. But I didn’t know that making dandelion-root tea would be a source of phosphorus, a nutrient that’s always hard to get down to the root level. Now to sneak out under cloak of night and steal me some dandelions…

  19. Brilliant factual posting…. the mines running low is a bit of a worry for food security

  20. Thanks Lia for the sustainable nudge that your blog has given me. Get so used to picking up and using a bag of fertiliser. This has made me stop and think about where it comes from.

    I am a big fan of recycling the good stuff in your garden with compost heaps and liquid feeds. Unfortunately this is not always possible working commercially in gardening . But I’m now going to make it my mission to educate my clients on the environmental impact of using fertilisers. Will keep you posted to whether I’m still in work next year!

    My other mission is to be an advocate of moss lawns- love ’em. Low maintenance and lovely to walk on in bare feet. If only we could get away from our desire for ‘bowling green’ lawns then this would reduce the need for fertilizers and the noisy, polluting lawn mowers that chug up and down our gardens every weekend.

    If your garden has decided to give you a moss lawn, don’t fight it to change the lawn into something it doesn’t want to be. Be proud, show off your green lawn in dry spells, when everyone else’s has gone brown. And join me in singing the praises of moss!

  21. i grew up drinking dandelion root coffee, no wonder my hair was all wild and straggly, twas all that fertilizer in it….

  22. Never bother with fertiliser on lawns especially in autumn due to cold weather coming and damaging new growth put on by the fertiliser.In spring yes, I just use compost and rake in.

    Good debate.xx

  23. BTW I spoke generally earlier, not specifically about lawns and fertiliser.

    I just think I should say that I have been mowing our grass lawns and paths now for over 20 years. Have never raked, weeded, fertilised or anything that required money or effort.

    It’s not bowling green stuff, but it’s perfectly good lawn and grass. Has some clover in it, but not a great deal. How does it manage???!!

  24. SS – sorry, not sure how i missed you out last time. Top tip, ta. One day i will get me some chickens.

    Mark – Marvelous. Thanks for that.

    Laetitia and James – Hooray! So delighted that this has steered you both from that path. Feeling more than a little pleased with myself. Very much with you on the moss lawn, James. And also aware how tricky it must be on when doing this as a job. Lead the way!

    Helen – Hope you find some out there…

    Chris – I believe the thinking is that it is likely to become a major problem, and it means that sustainable alternatives need to be looked at on a much larger scale than this.

    Michael – That’ll be it! Healthsome stuff.

    Michelle – I think the idea with a phosphate fertiliser is that it doesnt encourage new top growth, only that below ground, so it’s not a bad idea to apply it in autumn to make root systems stronger and so less susceptible to drought etc…the following year.

    Anne – I have to admit it’s not something I’ve done much, but I know people do, so wanted to provide an alternative. Yep, there is definitely a case for a bit of benign neglect of lawns, particularly if it means they end up with clover in, which of course, will help to fertilise the rest of the lawn by fixing nitrogen.

  25. Never fertilise lawns at all and use compost only on some veg and when planting new stuff. After that things take their chance. Agree with Anne that treating things mean is not a bad thing. But LOVE the idea of this as a use for dandelions. I tear the leaves off mine and put them on compost heap or feed them to chickens. Sadly chickens don’t like them much so they just wilt and die and blow around.

  26. Wow! I had no idea about the footprint of these things…I will look into this more closely…fascinating.
    Happily I haven’t the need for ferts with my organic blooms.
    I stumbled across your site today…love it!

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