August 2020

One of the things about a garden being left to its own devices for three months is that everything will flourish. And by that I mean everything. Beautiful shrubs and plants flower next to and frequently intertwined with weeds.

Sometimes I have found myself lifting the plant I want to stay put in order to remove the couch grass, bindweed, creeping buttercup whatever that has lovingly wrapped itself around it.

It does mean that a few parts of the garden will be closed when we reopen on August 1st. Partly because of the difficulty of setting up a robust one way system through the garden but also because the said areas, namely the Clematis Garden and part of the Long Border will still be untouched by the team.

We are romping through Alison’s Garden and the Hot Border, the Secret Garden and the Wild Area at the bottom of the garden are both coming on apace and the Iris Border looked more beautiful than I would have imagined for its first year. I was saddened that no one could see it but it will be looking even more beautiful next year so I will content myself with that for now.

It got me thinking about weeds generally and I got my copy of Richard Mabey’s book Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants off the shelf to reread. More a thoughtful discourse on weeds and their part in our lives than a reference book; Maybe looks at our often testy relationship with these plants through a beautifully woven mix of natural history, myth and legend.

The concept of a weed, or an unwanted plant is very much human and often, as Mabey points out in the eye of the beholder. The Romans introduced several varieties of nettle to Britain as they used them as a raw material, pot herb and medicine. Ground elder was introduced as a remedy for gout although you can be sure I won’t be putting any in the Physic Garden anytime soon. Many of the plants used for medicine are rampant hooligans (think Golden Rod, Meadowsweet, Lady’s Bedstraw) but I beat them back to where I want them when they threaten each other too grievously. However a girl has to draw the line somewhere and that somewhere is Ground Elder.

They’ve been a knotty issue in agriculture for centuries, contaminating crops but also seen as an indicator of soil fertility. Both adaptable and tenacious; a plant as coast-loving as Danish Scurvy grass now grows inland in England as it follows the salt-spreading gritter along main roads. Oxford Ragwort, originally from Italy, found growing in Oxford Botanic Garden in 1794; leapfrogging the walls of the botanic garden it progressed through Oxford, finding new homes in the stonework of the colleges. It made its way to Oxford Railway Station in the 1830s and once acquainted with the railway system, used it to ride across the country: to London by 1867, Swindon by 1890, Bideford in Devon by 1899 and as far north and west as the Clyde and Caernarvon by 1915 without so much as a ticket.

But they can also be beautiful. Queen Anne’s Lace with its frothy umbels of white flowers, the scent and creamy flowers of Meadow Sweet, or the wall dweller ivy-leaved toadflax.

In the end what makes our gardens a great habitation for weeds is us. Our constant cultivation of the soil is the perfect place for weeds to make their home. They are food plants for insects and have a part to play in our ecosystem.

So perhaps we should tolerate them a little more and make a space for them somewhere in our gardens. I’ll have a think about that next time I’m weeding.

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