This column likes to pride itself on inviting debate about the really big issues. War and peace. The future of the NHS. Artificial intelligence. You get the picture… or, at least, I hope you do given the many years I have been inviting your thoughts on such matters. But this week I’m suggesting a subject that might, at first sight, seem a little less weighty.
More specifically: are weeds good or bad? And my excuse for addressing this seemingly mundane and, you might think, possibly even boring topic is that the big gardening event of the year – the Chelsea Flower Show – is all about weeds. That’s what the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), which runs the show, has ruled. And there’s a very good reason for that. It wants to deliver the message that weeds are not a nuisance that must be eradicated at all costs but the precise opposite. They can not only look nice in your garden but, rather more importantly, they are vital for the survival of our insects and soil.
Let’s look at the negatives first. A quick trawl on the internet shows that whatever else weeds may achieve they are good for the many businesses which make their living from helping us to eradicate them. This message delivered by the weed control company ‘Abracadabra’ is typical of many:
‘Weeds compete with your lawn and garden for nutrients and water, which can lead to stunted growth and reduced yield. Weeds have a shallow root system, which means they don’t require as much water as other plants. This allows them to absorb more water and nutrients from the soil, leaving less for your lawn and garden.
‘Some weeds are invasive and can take over your lawn and garden if left unchecked. They can spread quickly and suffocate other plants, causing them to die. Some invasive weeds, such as thistles and bindweed, can be challenging to control once they take hold.
‘Weeds can attract pests, such as insects and rodents, to your lawn and garden. These pests can cause further damage by feeding on your plants or creating nests in your yard. In addition, they can provide a hiding place for pests, making it more challenging to control them.
‘Pre-emergent weed control is a type of weed control that prevents weeds from germinating. It is applied to the soil before the weed seeds start to sprout. Pre-emergent weed control can prevent weed growth for up to six months. Post-emergent weed control is a type of weed control that kills weeds that have already sprouted. It is applied directly to the leaves of the weed and can provide immediate results.’
Its conclusion is that ‘regular weed control is essential to prevent weed growth and protect your lawn and garden from damage.’
Until relatively recently it’s safe to say that message would have been received with nods of agreement by most gardeners and, indeed, by organisations like the RHS. But no longer. Four of the twelve so-called ‘show gardens’ at the Chelsea show will, for the first time, boast plants that had traditionally been regarded as weeds. It’s true that many of our more enlightened gardeners have long taken the view that a weed is merely a flower or plant in the wrong place, but the RHS has gone way beyond that. They have now effectively rebranded the weeds in the show gardens as ‘resilient’ or even as ‘heroes’.
This is music to the ears (or, rather, the eyes) of the respected environmentalist and author Mary Reynolds. She was well ahead of her time. It’s twenty years since she won a gold award for her show garden at Chelsea. It was commended for its ‘subversive’ use of weeds’. What has changed so dramatically since then is that ‘subversive’ is being replaced with ‘desirable’ or even ‘vital’.
As Alys Fowler, the respected gardener and Guardian columnist, has written: the ‘championing of the humble weed by the RHS comes in the face of mounting evidence that weeds are doing far more than taking up resources. They are giving back.’ That’s partly because so many of them are ‘intricate parts of the food web’.
They flower at the right time of year to be important sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators and their leaves, roots and seeds act as larval food for other insects.
Their other great strength is that they are resilient by nature. As the RHS puts it, they often flower repeatedly, whatever the weather, and they’ll grow pretty much anywhere. They don’t need beautifully rich soil with lots of lovely compost. Many of them are perfectly happy in ‘poor, thin, baked, compacted and made-of-pure-rubble soils’. They are a ‘buffet that is always open and readily available to invertebrates, unlike more highly bred plants’.
But weeds are important for another reason too. Indeed, many argue that they are vital. They feed the soil. Here’s how Fowler puts it: ‘Many perennial weeds have deep root systems that break up compacted soils and mine the subsoil layers for minerals and nutrients, depositing them on the soil surface as their leaves die back. Annual weeds are often the first flush of protection for bare soil, their quick lifecycles timed perfectly to protect the critical biologically active top layers of soil so necessary for life on Earth, so easily damaged and eroded by weather if left bare. Though much-maligned, weeds protect, build and feed our soil system as they grow.’
Fair enough, you may say, but the Chelsea Flower Show is about aesthetics and so, in all likelihood, is your own garden. You want it to look nice and why not? But weed enthusiasts (like me I must confess) argue that tastes change and what we might once have regarded as a bit of a pest can - and often does - have an appeal of its own. As I look out onto my garden I see a riot of colour, some of it provided by Spanish bluebells and some by borage. But where I might see their beauty and (not unimportant!) beauty which requires no effort on my part, others will see invasive species that must at all costs be controlled. As the old proverb has it, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And many of us may have no objections to borage in the borders or daisies in the lawn, but what about dandelions or docks or even bindweed and brambles? Can we learn to love them too? Here’s what Alys Fowler has to say about that:
‘All have uses. The bramble’s thorns and lolloping ways act as a protective home to the songbirds trying to hide from the cat, to say little of the flowers, buzzing with bees and other pollinators in midsummer, and the berries we greedily pick. Some are less easy to love, like bindweed, but it is a source of pollen for insects, and a food source for the convolvulus hawk-moth.
‘That designers are starting to use some of these plants in their show gardens, even ones that have a reputation as being difficult to control, such as brambles and thistles, is a sign that we are finally getting the message that our natural habitats are in danger at every level and that our gardens are part of the solution. They are both a habitat in their own right and a vital link to the wider, wilder ones. This is best achieved if our gardens are dynamic with many different ecological niches for things to thrive in – weeds offer up a myriad of different ways to do this without chemicals, without feeding, watering or even sowing.
‘That they can be appreciated in this light and aesthetically too is genuinely cheering. Spend time looking at them as plants rather than weeds and you will notice that each has a beauty to it. A drift of the rusty seedheads of dock against a backdrop of summer blond grasses, or a bank of dandelions thick in flower: these are majestic plants worthy of inclusion in designs. They just need tending, like all the other plants in your garden, mowing the dandelions before they set seed, pruning brambles as you would a logan or wine berry, pulling up the seedhead of dock before they shatter.’
Are you persuaded? Do you think the time has come to let nature have its way even if it means a slightly scruffier garden?
Let me know.