On Creeping Charlie, Dandelion and Clover


Hawthorne

Hawthorn, front lawn, in field of clover (good) and dandelion (OK, but requires control) Hawthorne did not bloom, still too young, I guess, but I like its foliage nonetheless.

When I noted a few weeks back via Twitter that I had fertilized my lawn, a family member put a note on Facebook: “Don’t do it! It only makes the grass grow!”

Well, as far as lawn care goes, I try to be a centrist. I do not dump copious amounts of chemicals on my lot to eliminate any form of insect grub, non-grass plant or soil imbalance.

I also do not “aerate” my lawn. Deliberately digging up dog-poop sized lawn divots is such a common process, perhaps it means something, but I can’t honestly wrap my mind around the concept of introducing oxygen into the soil to benefit plants—don’t plants consume carbon dioxide and fart out oxygen?

Pretty foot flowers

Foot flowers. Nikayla's feet today. She and her family came over and we went for a run this afternoon--Audrey can keep up with my jogging pace while pushing Tristan in a walking stroller. Speedy? Not me.

But, I make some attempts to care for it, too.  I mow my lawn regularly (sometimes with a reel mower, which really upsets the boss because it doesn’t work well at all), I plant grass seed in bare spots and I do, now and then, no more than once a year and sometimes not that often, fertilize.

Anyway, at one extreme of the lawn care theology belief system is what I call the “golf course” or “AstroTurf” school of thought. A lawn should be uniform, only certain species of grass need apply, and it should extend beyond the border of my property clear to the nearest creek. (My wall-building neighbor has been busy trying to lawn up the woods behind his house—even to the point of burning brush, which, brought him a visit from the local fire department. You can’t burn brush in Cedar Rapids, not legally, anyway.)

I don’t belong to that fundamentalist theology. For one thing, I remember the old line that you can choose to raise grass or raise kids, but you can rarely do both—and I favor the kid end of that equation, which has become, in my life now, the grandchild end of the equation.

The other extreme is the “I love dandelions” approach to lawn care. Mow your lawn enough to keep the city at bay, and otherwise learn to appreciate the beauty of whatever green thing happens to sprout on your lot. The renters on our other side seem to fall more into that camp. And my mother was an outspoken extoller of the beauty of dandelions.

I don’t belong to that school of thought, either. For one thing, I do like the look of grass, and while I don’t want it as perfect as AstroTurf, I don’t want a crazy quilt of thistles and creeping Charlie, either. For another thing, there is the “nuisance” factor. While I do not care for the wall guy’s green carpet, if I allowed anything at all to grow unmolested on my land, the many weeds of my lot would constantly be encroaching on my neighbors.

Dandelions and creeping Charlie

Exhibit A: Note the top of the photo. Creeping Charlie, despite its charms, is an inherently ugly plant and crowds out all others. This is a region on the west side of my lawn, adjacent to neighbors who do zero lawn care or weeding. CC constantly invades from their lot. I don't care enough to make it an issue with them--to each his own--but do attack creeping Charlie.

Of course, some would say, so what? But I think that some of the invaders, particularly creeping Charlie, can be obnoxious, so letting those plants take over my lot would be a bit rude to neighbors.

I guess the real crux of the matter is a plant sometimes called “ground ivy” or “creeping Jenny,” but has a more common name—how do you feel about creeping Charlie? My family member says it’s a fine plant, with pretty flowers and a nice aroma. It’s low and green and mow-able, and why not have a lawn of that fine flower?

Well. Exhibit A—the photo. I will concede that creeping Charlie has pretty flowers. But the plant itself is not really green at all. It’s sort of a dirty looking purple green. The plant blooms briefly, and is otherwise a hideous lawn invader.

An aggressive, tough, take over the world and overrun both your lawn and your gardens invader.

I wage an ongoing low-level campaign against creeping Charlie, using chemicals (but only directly on the plants, I don’t weed-N-feed my lot because I don’t want to endanger other non-grassy plants) and physical pulling.

Dandelions in clover

Clover and dandelions. I like them both, but do remove the dandelions--they just spread too much. Clover, in my opinion, is just interesting grass.

There is so much of it in my backyard that I have no hope of eliminating creeping Charlie.

So I do my best to contain it. I am comfortable trying to keep it a little humble, under control, not taking over the whole yard and gardens, but not wasting my time always attacking it, either.

Anyway, my attitude about other controversial lawn species?

  • The dandelion. What child has ever grown up without a love of this pretty yellow flower that comes on stems perfect for braiding into faux jewelry or hangman’s nooses for Barbie dolls? And what child does not enjoy the white puffy seed ball, which can magically be blown into the air? Sigh. Sadly, the plant spreads like crazy. I do remove most dandelions in my lawn. I do not attack them with the passion of a battle against creeping Charlie—I like dandelions—but I don’t allow dandelions to take over. (I think if you could breed a sterile dandelion, you could get rich. As long as it wouldn’t spread all over the lawn, it could be the most popular garden flower worldwide.)
  • Clover. It’s the white angel to the red devil of creeping Charlie. Like CC, clover creeps and spreads and flowers. Unlike CC, it doesn’t usually form dense mats that crowd out all other grass. Also—again see photo—clover is the same color as grass. In many lawns it was accidentally or deliberately planted as grass. My attitude? I do nothing to discourage or interfere with clover. It’s just grass without the spikes. Sure, the flowers attract bees and bees sting—a painful reality of both my youth and adulthood—but come on. In 51 years on the planet, I have been stung maybe a total of four times. Not enough to change my generally favorable opinion of clover. Just wear shoes when clover is in flower.
  • Native violets. Pretty in the garden, invasive in the lawn, I try to move some and shamelessly kill the others. Then again, I try to plant grass in my lawn and kill it in my garden, so violets aren’t the only plant whose location makes all the difference. I found a pretty white variety that is not as common as the purple type, and wish more would attempt to encroach in my lawn so I could move it to my gardens. Violets do spread, but seem a bit more relaxed than dandelions, so I encourage violets in my gardens.
Crab apple and Japanese peony

Front lawn. One crab apple in bloom (has a twin that did not bloom yet, but front lawn will be very nice when it kicks in, too). Note new peonies in background about ready to pop with pretty red flowers. The dandelions where drive meets sidewalk are the neighbor's--the peonies are near the property line. This is looking towards the rental lot. Wally would never allow dandelions on his outdoor carpet.

In sum: I like a healthy lawn, but my standards of “health” are far lower than some. I want grass that can resist weeds, and I attack the weeds that are so aggressive grass stands no chance. But I am not a “uniform turf” kind of guy—I like having a few dandelions and think of clover as “grass.” (I have not noted some obvious problematic plants—yes, I attack and destroy all thistles and garlic mustard. Goes without saying, I hope).

Will this blog post spark family controversy and passionate debate? I hope so, as long as we remember that we’re writing about fairly mundane vegetation. I’ll express my opinions and try to debate the merits of several plants, but this isn’t theology. There’s room in heaven for both the dandelion heathens and the fundamentalist Astroturf purists (although, it’s also true, God made the dandelion and likes the heathens more!)

Yeah, I know, this long blog post doesn’t even grapple with the central point—to fertilize or not. Again, I waffle. I don’t very often, but did this spring primarily due to new grass being planted, and partly because the fertilizer is also good for my gardens.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “On Creeping Charlie, Dandelion and Clover

  1. Pat

    Oh, let’s see. Mulching mower, so the grass fertilizes itself, and I mow the fall leaves into the lawn (and collect some from neighbors for compost, mulch, and lawn fertilizer). Once every two years or so, some organic lawn fertilizer. I agree that clover is grass, and I’m not aggresive about removing most weeds from the lawn, with the exception of thistles.

  2. Cate

    Aw Joe, so inconsistent! “Weed” is just another name for “plant where you don’t want it.” I get much more exercised about the Kentucky bluegrass in my flowerbeds than the (totally inoffensive, and whaddaya mean ugly – just looks like mint!) creeping charlie in the shady parts of the back yard. Like Pat, I use the mulching mower and the grass seems to grow just fine. I appreciate the beauty of the dandelion, but don’t object when the neighbor on the left applies weedkiller to his (and to a a six-foot strip of my) yard.
    I have become interested in the idea of an edible lawn, and dandelions fit nicely into that scheme – dandelion greens are actually quite tasty, I ate them once in awhile during my volunteer days in Kentucky. Mostly, though, my attitude toward my lawn is, “what’s your point?” I like trees, flowers and vegetables. I like clover because it’s soft and (like creeping charlie!) fragrant. Grass – who needs it?

    • crgardenjoe

      I think our only area of dispute is the nature of creeping Charlie, and that seems like a minor aesthetic difference (I don’t want a yard of mint, either). Otherwise, our approach to lawn care differs only in that A) I fertilize when I plant new grass and B) I do spray the actual weeds (not the yard as a whole, and I try mechanical removal when I can which is preferable to spraying). At previous houses, where the yard itself was healthier, I did not do A and had less need of B. And, honestly, if it behaved more like clover (if it wasn’t so darn aggressive) I would leave CC alone. By the way, although I have not tried it (or any part of a dandelion, almost all of which can be used for greens (leaves) coffee substitute (roots) or wine (flowers)), I read that CC is also used sometimes for a medicinal tea, so it may fit into the “edible lawn” paradigm. I also mulch my lawn. Can’t just do that will fall leaves (have to remove them due to depth of leaf coverage), but mainly I just feed the lawn itself, which is the only sensible thing to do.

  3. Amanda

    http://www.theiowagardener.com/Creeping_charlie.html

    I saw a portion of this article about creeping charlie in “The Sun” (Ames’ free local news/advertiser) and thought I’d share with you. I was going to send you the clipping, but the online version is longer and cheaper to send. 😉

    • crgardenjoe

      The article basically stated my most important point in attacking the plant. It’s not such a bad plant, but it does totally take over, and not just the lawn, but the gardens, too. On-line version was interesting to read.

  4. Anne

    Since my neighbor to the south built a 6 foot fence that keeps far too much sunlight out of my yard, I have resigned myself to a mostly Creeping Charlie lawn. At least it smells nice when mowed. Now, poison ivy – that gets nuked with weed spray.

  5. Pingback: 2010 in review | Crgardenjoe's Blog

  6. Dear Crgardenjoe:
    If you ever, ever figure out a truly healthy (as in “green”) approach on eradicating Creeping Charlie, my husband and I both will put you in our wills–ahead of our two children and two grandchildren. (Okay, this might be a tad overstated, but I’ll figure out something nice to do to repay you.)

    We tried the ol’ Iowa State University Extension Office idea of the Borax solution thing (personally, I don’t think my very nice husband did it right . . . my neighbor swears the water has to be near boiling when you spary the formula on–and hubby did not want to do that. But then–1.3 acres would take a lot of boiling water.) And now I swear we have even more of the obnoxious stuff.

    I try cussing at it from time to time–but I think it rather enjoys that, too. Dang.

    Your blog is beautiful. I champion the Monarch’s journey every year by planting what they like and need—and they vacation on our stand of purple cone flowers throughout the season. I couldn’t imagine a summer without them.

    I have a feeling you will become very rich once you find the perfect equation for stopping ol’ Charlie in his tracks.

    All best to you!

    • crgardenjoe

      Thanks for the comment! I photographed the monarch on my banner a couple of years ago, she’s hanging out on one of the cone flowers in my front garden. It does seem like summer when these pretty little Mexicans arrive–don’t tell any Republicans or they’ll all probably be deported …

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