(By Ashley Chesser, NCAP Co-Director, in collaboration with Kimberly Gallagher of LearningHerbs.com)
When is doing less the healthier choice? When it comes to maintaining your lawn! Letting common herbal weeds like dandelions grow in your lawn can support the health of people, pets and pollinators. Read on to see the benefits of herbal weeds in your lawn.
As spring approaches, many New Year resolutions have come and gone. Our good intentions didn’t become long-term habits. I still don’t floss my teeth regularly and my closet re-organization remains half completed. Self-care resolutions usually focus on daily habits–eating better and exercising more, for example. But good habits are seasonal, too. We eat more fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer and drink warm herbal teas in the cold winter months. And while many good habits are harder to build–curse you, dental floss!–one seasonal change with a big impact may be easier than you think. Let’s talk about lawns!
Seeding, fertilizing, watering, and mowing lawns is a habit for millions of Americans across the country. Where I live in Eugene, Oregon, many neighborhoods are bursting with manicured yards and perfectly trimmed green lawns. Even in late August when it hasn’t rained in months, vivid, wet grass remains, unbroken by clumps of yellow dandelions.
For many, lawns have become a status symbol rather than utilized space. In exchange for a sea of green, homeowners are expected to provide water, gasoline for mowers, time for maintenance, and often herbicides. Nearly 80 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns annually. Glyphosate, found in Roundup, is the most common lawn herbicide, used to kill dandelions, clover, and other “undesirable” species in a lawn. It has long been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is currently involved in a host of lawsuits for causing cancer. Another popular herbicide, 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), is found in many weed-and-feed products. One of the two pesticides used in Agent Orange, 2,4-D is linked to certain cancers and can cause nervous system damage.
In addition to chemicals, Americans also use 600 million gallons of gas in lawnmowers each year to maintain their lawns. A 2015 Environmental Protection Agency study found that gas-powered lawn equipment is a prevalent source of toxic and carcinogenic exhaust and fine particulate matter.
It’s time to end the unhealthy habits we’ve created in lawn maintenance and reap some amazing benefits for our families and for the planet!
Kimberly Gallagher, co-owner of LearningHerbs.com, is a proponent of utilizing herbal weeds. “My children grew up looking forward to dandelion season,” says Kimberly. “We would go out into our backyard and gather up those bright yellow blossoms and make dandelion flower cookies, fritters, and even bright yellow homemade fermented soda. Dandelion flower jelly could be pulled out at winter solstice for a little taste of sunshine.”
Kimberly says that the grass in her lawn is mixed with all sorts of useful plants. The plantain and chickweed become poultice band-aids for scrapes, cuts, and bee stings. They turn to yarrow for deeper cuts when they need to stop the flow of blood. Chickweed also gets made into pesto and added to salads along with miner’s lettuce and finely chopped plantain and dandelion leaves. One of their favorite lawn herbs is self-heal or heal-all. They gather the clustered tiny purple flowers to dry and add to tea blends.
Whether you love having some green turf or want to ditch the burden of mowing, an herbal lawn is a great option for almost anyone.
You can incorporate herbs into the grass you already have growing, or you can replace a lawn entirely with herbs. Most every benefit to having a traditional lawn can be achieved through the smart use of alternative plants. And you’ll have the added benefit of being able to harvest your own herbs on a regular basis.
The following are herbs you can incorporate into your lawn this spring, or let grow if they show up on their own. They all require less water than most turf grasses and need little to no mowing. You can also find eco-lawn mixes that contain assorted species well-suited to healthier lawns. Seeding is best done in early spring or fall. Before starting, rake out any dead or matted grasses in the lawn. Broadcast seeds by hand or using a wheeled seed spreader. Encourage growth by lightly raking compost or organic fertilizer into the lawn at the same time.
CHICKWEED (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is a flowering herb in the family Caryophyllaceae. It is native to Eurasia and naturalized throughout the world. The leaves are oval and small with white flowers that have five deeply lobed petals.
Benefits in a lawn: Chickweed can grow anywhere from 2 to 16 inches tall but generally grows shorter within a lawn. It forms a thick, dense mat that can withstand foot traffic and grows well in both sunny and shady conditions.
Some benefits as an herb: Chickweed is a tasty and nutritious addition to a salad. It is filled with beneficial vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin C. Chickweed’s cooling qualities can also be a great remedy when you have a fever that is making you feel hot and restless. Also, like plantain, a chickweed poultice can help heal scrapes, cuts, and blisters.
DANDELIONS (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelions are tap-rooted, perennial herbs, native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere.
Benefits in a lawn: The taproots break up compacted soil and the flowers provide food for pollinators.
Some benefits as an herb: The whole dandelion plant is a wonderful food source. The roots and leaves contain beneficial vitamins and minerals. Besides being nutritious, the bitter taste of both the leaves and roots help to stimulate digestion. The flowers are high in lutein, a constituent that supports eye health. Flower poultices can also help soothe itchy eyes and rashes.
PLANTAIN (Plantago spp.)
photo by Lawn Weeds
Plantain is a flowering herb native to most of Europe and Northern and Central Asia, but has naturalized in North America. Plantain is wind-pollinated and propagates primarily by seeds, which are held on the long, narrow spikes, which rise above the oval or lance-shaped leaves.
Benefits in a lawn: Plantain grows from a basal rosette and the root can be up to a foot long. Similar to dandelions, they are good at breaking up compacted soil. They are hardy and tolerant of repeated mowing and trampling.
Some benefits as an herb: Plantain is an amazing remedy for bee and wasp stings. It takes away the sting and also helps draw out the stinger. A plantain poultice will also help draw out splinters and heal cuts and scrapes. It is often known as the “band-aid plant” for these healing qualities. Plantain can also be chopped up small and added to salads. Because it is cooling and moistening, plantain can also be a wonderful remedy for a dry, hacking cough.
SELF-HEAL (Prunella vulgaris)
Self heal is a flowering plant in the mint family Lamiaceae and is common in most temperate climates. It has square stems and opposite leaves. Its numerous, small (about ½ inch), purple to pink or white snapdragon-like flowers have short, tubular stalks.
Benefits in a lawn: Self-heal is a great low growing perennial groundcover. It will die back a bit in the hot, dry months of the year but will return the following spring. The flowers provide food for smaller native pollinators.
Some benefits as an herb: This little weed is a powerful healing plant. It has antiviral properties and the polysaccharides in it can help support a healthy immune system. Hot self-heal tea is great at the beginning stages of a cold with a sore throat. Its antiviral properties will help our bodies fight the virus, while its demulcent qualities help to soothe and coat the irritated throat. A poultice of self-heal can also be helpful for healing wounds like cuts, scrapes, and burns.
THYME (Thymus serpyllum)
Thyme is an aromatic perennial evergreen herb in the mint family, Lamiaceae. Creeping thyme is the variety best suited for a lawn replacement, with green leaves and light pink flowers that bloom in early summer.
Benefits in a lawn: Many creeping thyme species thrive on neglect, and over time the plant grows lush and thick without becoming too long. It is drought tolerant and self seeding.
Some benefits as an herb: Though milder acting than garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) this variety can be used in the same ways. Thyme can help ease symptoms related to colds and flus and can be particularly helpful when trying to stop coughing spasms. Thyme also aids digestion and can be useful for reducing intestinal gas. Thyme is antimicrobial and is wonderful when used as a mouthwash for sore gums and minor mouth infections.
WHITE YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is a flowering perennial herb that spreads via rhizomatous growth. It is native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere in Asia, Europe, and North America.
Benefits in a lawn: Yarrow is much tougher than grass and can endure high traffic once established. The blossoms provide food for smaller native pollinators.
Some benefits as an herb: Also known as “woundwort,” yarrow is a go-to first aid plant for tending cuts and scrapes and for stopping bleeding —including from nosebleeds. Yarrow is also antimicrobial and can be used to address common symptoms of colds and flus, including sore throats and wet coughs. Beyond these acute situations, yarrow also can help promote healthy digestion and support vein health.
Kimberly Gallagher is the co-founder of LearningHerbs.com. She is the creator of the Wildcraft! board game and author of Aphrodisiac and the Herb Fairies book series and learning system. Kimberly is passionate about sustainable living, cultural transformation, healthy cooking, parenting, and storytelling.