I am on my knees again, weeding. This time removing a small primrose plant growing in the gap between the house wall and a concrete path. Why remove a Primrose, voted several years ago as the County Flower for Devon? There are plenty more in the border nearby and it is just in the wrong place. And that is the definition of a weed, “a wild plant in the wrong place”.
Weeds need to be removed when they compete with our crops. One situation could be weeds growing in open ground, such as vegetable plots. They could be weeds in lawns, originally plants of meadows. A third category, more specific to gardens, are weeds of beds and borders competing with herbaceous perennials and shrubs.
In my lawn I tolerate and enjoy the wild flowers so there are no weeds there. This is true even for dandelions in moderate numbers. I like to watch them as the insects work the flowers and later see the Goldfinches twitter down on to the ground next to an unripe seed head, hold the stem down with one leg, while delicately picking the seeds out one by one. By contrast any dandelions in the beds and borders are dug out. This is the other aspect of weed control, it is a matter for your personal choice and opinion on what course of action to take.
Another example is with the large numbers of Selfheal and White Clover plants in my lawn, which are encouraged but weeded out in the beds and borders. After cutting the lawn in spring it is left so that these two plants can flower. They both flower together in July giving a bonanza of purple and white for a variety of bees. No further cutting is done until late summer, after the grasses and other plants have flowered. As gardeners, if we wish to benefit wildlife, we have the opportunity to choose from our personal preferences how best we can do that.
Every gardener has their weed nemesis. In my case there are two species, the Broad- leaved Willow herb which produces thousands of tiny seeds on parachutes, and Hairy Bitter-cress which has seed pods that when ripe, explode as they are touched. They are everywhere in the borders and have an ephemeral life cycle. Wildflower books often refer only to annual, biennial and perennial lifecycles, but there is also an ephemeral one. Ephemeral is having two, three, or four generations of plants each year. Before you realise it, the plant has grown and gone to seed, usually missed as they hide under the gooseberry bush or when you go on holiday. Even dry conditions or winter will not stop them, they just mature quicker, grow shorter and turn to seed. I have found out, by accident, that they do not like too much competition, in my case from a carpet of Forget-me-nots. When these were allowed to germinate over the winter and spring, underneath the fruit bushes, it was too much for the weeds to be able to push through. Their blue carpet of flowers was humming with insects feeding on the flowers. I also had the pleasure of a pair of Bullfinches that came to feed on the seeds. As the plants died, they are pulled up, but not before enough seeds have been shed for next year.
Is it possible to have a favourite weed? Mine is the Scarlet Pimpernel. Plants turn up now and again, never spreading very much, and as their bright colours cheer me up, I leave them alone.
Enjoy the neat rows of luscious vegetables but why not rebel with a little wildness now and again. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins :
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness; Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.