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(Not So!) Wild About Wild Violets

Q. Mike: Violets are my problem. I don't want to tear up my lawn and start over or use chemicals (which don't work anyway). What can I do to make these stubborn little weeds go away?

    ---Peter in Rockville, Maryland (PS: I found your show on the Sirius 'NPR Talk' channel and got hooked!)

We can grow grass 'OK', but for some reason we can really grow violets. The lawn is being taken over by them. Removing them individually is extremely time consuming and the weed killer my husband uses only seems to encourage them. Do you have any advice?

    ---Laurie in Severna Park, MD

I have a partially sunny front yard with decent grass, relatively few "normal" weeds, and a significant amount of violets. I keep the lawn mowed pretty high and only fertilize once a year in the spring. I heard that violets like acid soil, so I have tried over the years to regularly apply lime in the fall. I have also tried spraying several times with a strong mix of 'Weed-B-Gon', but that hasn't worked either. What else can I do?

    ---Brian in Pittsburgh

Mike: Help me get rid of wild violets. Commercial weed killers just don't do the job.

    ---Steve in St. Louis

A. No, they do not. In his classic book "Lawns", Iowa State University Professor and frequent You Bet Your Garden turf grass advisor Nick Christians, Ph.D., writes that the waxy coating on their shiny leaves makes wild violets virtually invulnerable to chemical herbicides. {Quote}: "They often survive when all other weeds in the lawn have been controlled."

But that warning comes after his first sentence, which reads: "Violets have an attractive blue flower and are not always objectionable in a lawn." Now, this isn't coming from some left-leaning, tree-hugging, Miracle-Gro-confiscating organic advocate like moi. Although he popularized the use of corn gluten meal as a chemical-free, pre-emergent herbicide, Dr. Nick also uses chemical herbicides. And HE says to consider just leaving violets be.

I will add that early lawns were designed to have pretty things sprout up out of them. Clover was an integral part of early seed mixes, and a clover-free lawn was considered a sign of poor care! And many people still plant small summer-blooming bulbs like grape hyacinth, crocus, species tulips and scilla directly in their lawns. By the time the turf needs its first Spring cut, the flowers will have faded and the leaves will have absorbed enough solar energy to pop up and entertain again the following year.

So the first and best answer is to do nothing. Except maybe get over yourself.

Otherwise, our Pittsburgh listener is correct; violets do thrive in overly acidic soil. They also thrive in soils that are deficient in calcium. So lime may help control their spread. But don't guess how much; have your soil tested and follow the recommendations as to how much lime to apply. (Or substitute one and a half times as much hardwood ash; see THIS PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK for more details on using wood ashes in place of lime.)

Nick adds that the other aspects of proper lawn care—cutting, watering and feeding correctly for your specific turf—are equally important. That lawn in Pittsburgh, for instance, needs to also be fed in the Fall to be healthy enough to hold violets at bay.

As Nick and all of our Questioners note, chemical herbicides are especially ineffective against this pretty plant. All you're doing with that Roundup and Weed B Gon is killing frogs and toads, increasing your future risk of Parkinson's and poisoning your neighbors' well. So knock it off!

If you MUST have an artificially perfect, eco-insensitive, mono-cultural, globally warm-criminal lawn, dig up the clumps; the heart/kidney shaped leaves make the plant easy to spot. Use a poaching spade so you can go deep and get all the roots. Do this in the Fall for cool-season lawns and in the Spring for warm season ones so you can fill the holes with compost and grass seed and get a nice stand of replacement turf. Or, if it's just something about the violets personally—say your mother was scared by gentian while pregnant with you—dig up the clumps and plant little Spring bulbs in their place.

Or transplant them. I LOVE wild violets, and whenever some pop up in the 'wrong' place, I just move them to an area where I want more color in the Spring or some pollination insurance. Native bees looking for summer homes will be attracted to your violets in the Spring and then hang around and pollinate the rest of your plants all season long. Or maybe you didn't want lots of flowers and fruits?

And finally, wild violets are deliciously edible. They are the heart of 'candied violets', and look and taste great adorning salads. They are also a tremendous source of rutin, a hard-to-find nutrient that strengthens capillary walls, preventing or reversing the visible effects of varicose and spider veins.

Long-time listeners know that I always tell people to harvest and eat their pansy flowers for this purpose. Well, all members of the Viola family contain rutin in their flowers; and as our good buddy, retired USDA researcher and best-selling author Jim Duke, Ph.D., has explained so many times, the wild form of a plant typically contains much higher levels of naturally occurring nutrients than the cultivated form.

So stop fighting your wild violets (and Johnny jump-ups) and start eating them! You'll live longer, and perhaps more importantly, look better in a bathing suit.

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