The path to my front door is wild. Tiny things spring from the cracks; moss creeps over the bricks, allowing foxgloves and mulleins to rise up and tower. Wild marjoram has danced from one side to another and is now taking on the top of the brick wall. Under the front step is a crowd of dandelions. I remember writing, many years ago, about my fight to get rid of these dandelions. Clearly, I didn’t win. Now, when I am greeted by them, I am glad I lost the battle. These days, I truly consider them friends.
I didn’t always have a garden that was quite so full of wild things. I am sure many would think I need to do some weeding, but I won’t. Some I might nudge out of the way; some will stay; some will be outcompeted. If anything beastly moves in, I will intervene, but I have fundamentally shifted my position on weeds. They are welcome in my garden, because I know they do more good than harm.
“Weed” is a vague term. It comes from the Old English weod and means a plant, a grass, a herb or a tree – anything that grows abundantly around us. That is to say, a plant that exploits our growing conditions, be that in an agricultural field, a back garden, a pavement edge or a park. Weeds are plants, often wildflowers – until they come a little too close and take advantage. Then they are weeds. They have been following us around since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, roughly 12,000 years ago. It is a long history, yet it is only relatively recently that it has become a battle.
We started off with a very different relationship. Weeds were not things that needed to eradicated, but rather stuff we could gather and use. The ethnobotanical term for this is a cryptocrop: a wild plant that is useful to have on the edge of your field. The common names often tell of this; fat hen makes your hens fat, as does chickweed; sowthistle is good for lactating pigs and rabbits, hence its other name, hare thistle. All of these also happen to be delicious to humans, too.
For millennia, humans gathered, tended and used these so-called weeds so that they became a resource, either as a source of food (for their animals or themselves), a medicine or a material. Nettles, brambles and fireweeds all have a long history of being used as cordage. Many perennial weeds are very good at nutrient cycling, their long tap roots allowing them to mine minerals and nutrients from subsoil layers, which in turn helps to stabilise and improve soil for crops. They also protect soil; bare soil is easily eroded and damaged by the weather.
All of this would have been noticed and noted, but as agriculture turned into agribusiness, and farms went from small mixed systems to larger segregated ones of arable or animal, our ideas of what could stay at the margins changed. As such, many cryptocrops became weeds.
Then there was the rapid, widespread introduction of chemicals. Manufactured fertiliser meant weeds did better – before synthetic herbicides got rid of them. The landscape changed radically. This new order was quickly marketed to the home gardener; the postwar aesthetic promoted a clean and controlled nature.
Weeds became something to be feared, to fight, to be defeated. But they are an adaptable lot. They evolved out of changeable environments, so they reached into their gene pools and found new ways around our chemical attacks. In any case, there is growing evidence that many herbicides are doing serious damage to our water, our soils, our wildlife and our health. The other way to remove weeds on a large scale – through tillage (ploughing, rotovating or digging) – degrades and damages the soil.
Of course, weeds need to be managed, but there is another side to them that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many weeds are excellent for the environment because they feed others. Their flowers feed many insects; their leaves feed caterpillars, aphids and other soft-bodied things that in turn are the feed for other insects, birds and mammals. Come autumn, their seed feeds many wild birds. These unwanted plants support all manner of wildlife. There is growing evidence that even the ones considered noxious to agriculture – spear thistle, field thistle, common ragwort, curled dock and broad-leaved dock, which are controlled by the 1959 Weeds Act – are actually very good for nature.
In fact, they are not just important, they are maybe disproportionately so compared with the plants we actively cultivate, be they garden or agricultural ones. That famous “weedy” nature – the ability to survive in places where other plants can’t – means they often provide considerably more nectar and pollen than cultivated plants or plant species recommended for pollinator-targeted agri‑environmental schemes (in other words, wildflower mixes). Think of buttercups that keep their flowers open on cloudy days, or the dandelions that arrive en masse when the bees are starting their colonies, or the bittercresses whose late-winter flowers are an important source of nectar and pollen to pollinators.
Many weeds are generalists, meaning they cater for many visiting pollinators, from bees and hoverflies to beetles and butterflies, with all their varying tongue lengths. They tend to have simple flowers and often grow in swathes; it is much easier for an insect to forage efficiently if it doesn’t have to fly far between food sources. Compared with many wildflower mixes, which tend to peak between June and August, weeds flower in cold and dull weather. At any point of the year, there is a weed in flower somewhere. Finally, they grow everywhere: in the shade, in the sun, on rubbish heaps, in the thickest clay or thinnest urban soils. You can buy wildflower seeds, but why not learn to love your weeds instead?
That is what I have done as a gardener, philosophically and practically. I never see weeding as the chore that it is made out to be. It is a methodical practice that marries the hand to the mind, each weed with its own rhythm: the chase of a deep tangle of roots before they snap, the pleasure of the pop of a dock or dandelion, the easy pull of speedwell on wet soils. I can lose hours in this reverie. Sure, on wet or cold days, it is harder work, but it is deeply satisfying – and no more so in the fact that it is cyclical. You will be back on your hands and knees in no time.
I let my weeds have my margins, to grow in difficult spots. Many are very easy to control just by removing the spent flower heads before they set seed. This way, the pollinators can get their fill and I don’t get overrun. The beastly sort – bindweed, brambles, dock – are rotted down in a bucket of water that drenches the compost and ultimately returns all the nutrients to my soil. Their rise and fall are part of the rhythm of gardening.
In the weeds: 13 varieties to get to grips with
An excellent pollinator plant and foraged food – all parts are edible – and a gentle but powerful medicine. A lot of dandelions can be a sign that the soil is low in calcium. Spread by seed.
The leaves are rich in nitrogen and potassium, indicating the soil is very fertile where they grow. An important food source for butterflies and ladybirds, who eat the aphids that shelter in them. In autumn, the seeds feed birds. The seeds and young leaf tips are edible. Makes a good liquid fertiliser for plants. Spread by seed and roots.
Early yellow flowers are important for pollinators, particularly bumblebees. It thrives only in damp soils. Its leaves are rich in vitamin C and were once used for scurvy. Spread by seed.
Once an important food source for hens and geese on the farm. Young tips are edible and famed as a spring tonic. Spread by seed.
A wonderful pollinator plant with a long flowering period. Its seeds are eaten by birds and mammals and its presence is an indicator of heavy, wet soils. Spread by dense roots.
An important food source for many bees and an indicator of alkali soils. Grows in damp places, often near buildings. Spread by seed and root fragments.
Another generalist for pollinators and a food plant for the grizzled skipper butterfly. It has edible roots that taste of cloves. Indicates damp soils and often found in shade. Spread by seed.
A food plant and nectar source for many insects, including bees and hoverflies. Traditionally, used as antiseptic in herbal medicine. Usually indicates free-draining soils. Spread by seed.
A generalist pollinator plant attracting beetles, bees and hoverflies. A food plant for several moths. Edible young leaves and stems. Deep, pernicious roots. Tolerates deep shade and poor soils. Spread by roots and seed.
An important spring nectar source for bees and butterflies. It is edible and tastes like rocket. Indicates damp soil with poor drainage. Spread by seeds that explode up to 1 metre.
Its pretty blue flowers are a food source for a variety of insects, including solitary bees. Forms a dense matt, often in lawn, and tends to indicates damp soils. Spread by seed and roots.
The bane of many gardeners, because it chokes out plants with dense mat, but it is an important forage grass for grazing mammals, its seed are eaten by bunting and finches and it is a food plant for butterflies, including the Essex skipper. Used in herbal medicine as a mild diuretic. Spread by roots and seed.
Dock (curled and broad-leaved)
Deep taproots and vigorous top growth means they have a fearsome reputation as weeds, but they are a food source for more than 100 insects, including beetles, butterflies, moths, bees and wasps. Common on soils rich in nitrogen and deficient in potassium. Spread by roots and seed.