There is no shame in having a weedy garden and we should rise above ‘untidiness’, says Fiann Ó Nualláin.
You will often hear it quoted: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered”.
But do we really hear what Ralph Waldo Emerson was saying when he uttered it? That weeds just might be useful. That weeds just might be good. That weeds might just be loveable.
I know— the wagon from Bellevue is on its way and my next jacket will button up the back — but what if it’s not such a crazy notion.
The other line is: “A weed is merely a plant in the wrong place”.
That wrong place is invariably the garden where its presence is often feared and loathed by gardeners.
Understandable in the context of weeds competing for space, water, nutrition and light with all of the other garden flora that we prize for their beauty and utility.
Yet it seems that the biggest dread is the ‘untidiness’ that the presence of weeds implies and the negative connotation that the word ‘weed’ implies.
Having a weed is the gardener’s shame. Or at least it is supposed to be.
Like so much in life it is not what it is, but how it is perceived that shapes experience and approach. There is a perception about weeds that places them in the negative, in the bothersome, in the ‘adversary’ role.
Labelled as unworthy, perhaps a weed is of equal value to the flora that it is in competition with?
Maybe it is even superior and far from unworthy; perhaps it is of benefit? Perhaps there is both beauty and utility in garden weeds when we truly get to know them.
We sow legumes as green manure and nitrogen fixers, but baulk at transplanting clovers from the lawn to grow beneath our fruit trees — where they attract predators of fruit pests and nourish the soil.
It may very well be that a weed is more than a plant in the wrong place and is in fact often a plant taken out of place and given a different context: cited as a ‘nuisance’ rather than ‘natural’.
In our nature-harassed gardens; manicured and manoeuvred to convey a contrived design ideal, a weed has no place — is given no quarter.
However, many weeds have healing potential. We know docks doctor a sting but a poultice of plantain foliage will help ease the redness and itch of burns, eczema and rashes.
The flowers of lawn daisies have a long history of being brewed into a tea to treat gastrointestinal and respiratory tract ailments and as a beautifying skin tonic and eye brightener.
Weeds have become victims of their propagative success and their tenacity in a world that values the ornamental and the ‘individual’ ornamental at that, above a collective good.
Their proliferation has alienated them from the credit of value. However, weeds are flora too. In the wild, out of the constructed garden, they thrive in a symbiotic participation with the natural world; they are plants that man had always utilised and appreciated but which the modern age has sidelined.
A dandelion salad was once popular as a diuretic, appetite stimulant and to treat ailments of the liver and gallbladder. Now we have our bag of nitric-gassed baby lettuce as convenience, but with no medicinal contribution.
We know that by leaving a patch of nettles it will draw plenty of ladybirds which prefer to lay their eggs on it and that the presence of ladybirds is one of the best ways to increase your organic or integrated pest management.
Those pretty beetles devour your aphid infestations faster than your thumbs can squish — so do we leave a patch of nettles or succumb to the fear of what the neighbours might think?
Okay so — go ahead and pull the nettles, but why not use them to make a super foliar feed to boost the health and vigour of the plants you do cherish. Let their phytochemicals replace store-bought chemicals.
We know fertilisers, herbicides and other common garden chemicals can have a detrimental effect on the health of soil, on pollinators, wildlife and on the health of gardeners.
We know the energy used to manufacture it, the plastic produced to containerise it and the large carbon footprint to deliver it to a store near you — all make a big contribution to climate change, air pollution and other complications for the planet and its inhabitants.
How the majority of gardeners manage their gardens with such products is less than ideal.
The average garden could be restoring the planet — saving local pollinator populations, filtering toxins from the air, releasing oxygen, stopping heat island effect and slowing run-off-related flooding and so on.
However, conditioned to ‘treat’ weeds with herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers, we undo the good work. Maybe loving a weed instead of hating a weed can help cut chemicals out of the equation.
Boiling water will kill a weed creeping through the seam of your paving slabs as thoroughly as any factory product, but adding some plucked weeds to boiling water can extract their intrinsic phytochemicals that deliver natural solutions to many garden problems — from killing aphids to preventing chlorosis.
The most common garden weeds contain iron, sulphur and magnesium, all supportive of plant health. A fermented bucket of nettles and mixed weeds is not just a feed, but an insecticide.
All tap-rooted weeds are dynamic accumulators — pulling minerals up from deep layers of soil — their enriched foliage will make great feeds and compost activators.
Many have medicinal value to the human system. You don’t have to nurture them or fawn over them as you would your roses, dahlias or heritage carrots — you just have to harvest them for their benefits.
Stop seeing the shame — start seeing the gain. Loving your weeds is an opportunity to explore their purposefulness in your garden — it is a step into a more sustained organic gardening practice. It is a step towards a zero-waste garden.
If these weeds are upcycled into product, into dye, into food, then we not only reduce waste and chemical usage and lessen our carbon footprints, but we avoid wasting a resource. We gain so much more.
Not every gardener will want to eat a weed. Not every gardener will want to turn a weed into plant food.
However, some gardeners will appreciate the contribution that a few weeds make to hungry birds and butterflies, to early emerging bees, to predatory beetles and beneficial insects that help right the balance of your garden to being a truly natural wonder.
This year I will periodically return to write about individual weeds and how they can be an ally to the garden and to the gardener.
Next week I will look at how you can safely compost weeds and some techniques to speed up the compost- making process from a few months to a few weeks.
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