The season of wildflowers

Published 7:11 am Saturday, January 15, 2022

By Felder Rushing

Tis the season to hunker down in the garden, unless you are not a big fan of lawn wildflowers.

This time of year I mostly wander around, savoring camellias, fragrant winter honeysuckle, paperwhite Narcissus, bright red berries, and colorful winter songbirds, all which can be enjoyed while bundled up. Love my cheery cold-hardy winter annuals, from violas and pansies to colorful kale and emerald-green parsley. Like you I also fret over the slew of shrubs that are supposed to flower later but always seen to have a few early blossoms, including Japanese magnolia, forsythia, and flowering quince.

But we often overlook an important group of plants out there right now, barely visible as they lay low with maybe a few early flowers, but ready to burst into full bloom in just a few weeks. I’m talking about inches-high wildflowers in the lawn, which we’ve been cynically taught over decades of advertisements to call “weeds” and treat as enemies needing a rain of chemical destruction. Yet we rarely notice them until they get larger, later.

They are not enemies; they’re just not neat and tidy. They actually fill an ecological niche by offering crucial nectar to an amazing variety of half-starved bees and even little butterflies and more, all active on every warm winter day.

There are two very effective approaches to dealing with this, which unfortunately are at odds with one another. The costly use of herbicides is one, requiring vigilance and choosing herbicides that will poison the weeds without damaging the lawn, and applying at just the right time, The other is the easy “mow what grows” approach of ignoring or admiring low-growing wildflowers; it’s finally becoming a new norm, even altruistic, with an early to mid-spring “flower lawn” seen as a badge of honor.

As both a trained turfgrass professional and lover of flowers and wildlife, I see both sides to this, and am not going to get into which anyone should choose. It’s your choice, unless you live in a community where neighbors dictate how you garden.

But it’s a fact that weed control is a never-ending battle in which herbicides are weapons of last resort. Weeds are actually a symptom of a thin lawn, usually one that’s mowed too low, hasn’t been fertilized at the right time (never before April), and never watered. Weeds naturally fill in the gaps, and quickly.

So, if you have a lot of weeds, think about tending your lawn better this summer and fall, rather than just depend on temporary chemical abatement.

All that said, if you really dislike dandelions, henbit, wild onion and garlic, clover, and (shudder) ferny little stickers, you’ll have more success if you spray them this month or early February, while they are small and tender rather than when they start sending energy up into flowers and seeds.

Whatever is labeled to kill dandelions and clover will do most others, too. But spray on a warmish day in the next few weeks and be done with it, or you will have a tougher time come spring, when your lawn will be more susceptible to the sprays as well.

And by the way, from MSU Turf Management 101: Convenient-sounding, heavily advertised “weed and feed” products are a counterintuitive Franken-combo of fairly decent but at-odds products (think “sugar-filled toothpaste”). Truth: Spray now, fertilize separately in April.

Don’t like spring weeds? Spray soon. Or put out a “Pollinators At Work” sign, sit back, and enjoy the butterflies and bees. Or consider a split golf course approach: A small neat putting green area set off by a sweet flower lawn fairway.