One might have thought that Sally Smith had come to Ticknall Garden Club on February 11th to convert the audience to love the weeds in their gardens, but this was not the case. With years of experience working at Ryton Organic Garden, she understandably had a forgiving attitude to them, but she showed that coping with weeds came down to knowledge, management and tolerance. Sir Edward Salisbury, one-time Director of Kew Gardens, defined a weed as “a plant growing where WE do not want it” in his authoritative book “Weeds and Aliens” published in 1961. Who can deny that grass is treated as a weed in a flower bed but not in a lawn?
The top ten troublesome weeds were listed as dock, dandelion, nettle, bramble, horsetail, chickweed, ground elder, creeping buttercup, bindweed, couch grass and cleavers. However individual gardeners will have their own list of pesky problems. Many have nicknames that make them sound attractive and quaint such as yorkshire fog, bachelor’s buttons, goosegrass, cat’s ear and goutweed. Ever since man began to till the soil to grow crops it has provided the perfect environment for weeds to thrive. Exposing bare soil allows seed to settle and germinate.
Weeds have strong survival mechanisms so knowledge of their growth habit is key to treatment. Annuals such as chickweed and groundsel grow quickly and some produce several generations in a year. They produce thousands of seeds which can spread many metres. It is true that one year’s seed can lead to seven years’ weed. The seeds of some, like poppies, can remain dormant in the soil for many years until disturbed and exposed to light. Perennial weeds such as dock and dandelion have stubborn deep tap roots. Some like couch grass and bindweed reproduce by spreading underground. They resist removal as the smallest piece of root left in the ground will grow again.
Management of annuals is best done by removing them before flowers set seed. Perennial weeds can be dug out with a lot of patience and care. Close planting in flower beds limits the opportunity for weeds to grow. A no dig routine inhibits growth of weeds as does mulching with suitable material. The vegetable garden benefits from a cover of cardboard or a crop of green manure which can be dug in to provide nitrogen. Poached egg plant round fruit bushes demonstrates the benefit of companion planting. If all else fails then the use of herbicides is not ruled out although not encouraged by the speaker herself.
A more tolerant attitude to weeds can be developed when we understand more about them. Thistles and teasels provide food for birds. Nettles have aphids for ladybirds and are host for the eggs and larva of several butterflies. Ragwort is home for the cinnabar moth. Clover can be a positive advantage in a lawn being so green and locking in nitrogen. Bindweed has the most attractive pink or white flowers so perhaps just let them grow freely. The flowers of borage can be eaten and the seeds of poppies used in baking bread. The leaves of bittercress and fat hen (a forerunner of spinach) can also be eaten. There is a fine line between garden nuisance and charming wild flower. Wild pansy, dog violet, rose bay willow herb and scarlet pimpernel have attractive flowers but can take over a flower bed given the chance, but they can be given a home in a suitable position in the garden.
Sally Smith gave an attentive audience a balanced look at the problem of weeds and proved that with some thought they can be managed and even tolerated.