‘I will go root away the noisome weeds, that without profit suck the soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers’.
– Shakespeare

What is a weed? In the broadest sense I suppose, a weed is any plant growing where it is not wanted. But according to this definition even lawn grass could be considered a weed if it creeps into a garden or a flower bed!
My own view is that every pest and plant has its place in the great scheme of things, so I would re-word the above definition of a weed thus … ‘any plant that grows easily and profusely to the extent that it becomes a nuisance, either being in the wrong place, being difficult to control, or depriving other cultivated plants of space or nutrients in the garden’.
Therefore it is totally a personal decision as to whether a particular plant is a weed or not.
Although I enjoy gardening in all its aspects, my real enthusiasm is for fruit and vegetable growing. But it was whilst helping my good wife Heather Borders in the flower garden, that my lady became the inspiration for this article.
We had a little ‘domestic’ on the subject of what constitutes a weed!
I happened to remark that several kinds of plants growing in our flower garden should have their invasive tendencies curtailed by pruning the seed heads before they ripened and dispersed.
One such, Alchemilla, often called Lady’s Mantle, has attractive leaves and is good for ground cover. The seed heads in summer are beautiful, and Heather is reluctant to crop them for that reason, but left to themselves they quickly take over the borders to the exclusion of other plants. If this is allowed to happen, it eventually makes for very hard work retrieving the situation. Alchemilla, and many other ‘cultivated’ plants, could be described as weeds by my definition.
The plants that most folks would commonly regard as weeds are usually native species that thrive simply because they are well suited to their environment. Most of these plants bear leaves and flowers I would regard as beautiful in their own right.
All plants compete for space, light, water, and nutrients, and, left to nature, a balance of sorts is arrived at in the long term.
However, most gardens are an artificial environment created by man, either for his pleasure, or to grow food for his table, and intervention is necessary to protect his cultivated plants and produce from invasion by vigorous native species.
For the organic gardener there is only one solution to the problem.
Here come the military analogies again.
Did I hear someone say ‘it’s a war out there’!
Know your enemy!
Learn to identify their habits of growth and methods of propagation.
Initial intelligence suggests that the enemy is either annual or perennial, and can spread by seed, sucker, or by repeated yearly outflanking invasions via next door’s neglected territory.
Hone your weapons and strike at the right time.
Victory is possible only at the price of constant vigilance, blood, sweat, and tears!
It would be impossible to give a comprehensive list, but the following are a few species that cause most problems to gardeners.
▪ Bindweed; Spreads by a network of roots. Much perseverance needed to get rid of this one. Leave one bit of root and it will be back!
▪ Creeping buttercup; Deeply rooted and creeps along the surface, hard to pull out.
▪ Dock; Seeds prolifically, dig it out before it gets too big.
▪ Dandelion; Well-known weed. Dig it out. Don’t leave any root behind.
▪ Twitch or couch grass; Shallow rooted but persistent.
▪ Ground elder; Very persistent. Constant hoeing and digging out required.
▪ Rosebay willow herb; Another prolific seeder. A real problem in my garden. Get it out before it seeds.
▪ Groundsel
▪ Shepherd’s purse
▪ Meadow grass
▪ Bittercress
▪ Chickweed
▪ Sow thistle
All these annuals seed prolifically.
Hoe them out when small before they get a chance to seed.
Some of them seed all year round!
With most weeds eradication is feasible only when there are a few plants, but by the time most of us realise there is a problem, there are usually hundreds of them and, most likely, thousands of viable seeds in the ground.
As long as there are weed seeds around and habitat for them to germinate in, then stopping an invasion seems like trying to stop a train with your bare hands!
It all sounds like very hard work. It is, in a large garden, unless you are on top of the problem.
There is another way of looking at this.
Some so-called weeds are useful. Most wildflowers are very beautiful. All play host to other forms of wildlife. Nettles are home to beautiful butterflies for instance. Ivy is home to many insects, and a nesting place for small birds. Birds love the seeds of thistles and groundsel.
It would be nice to keep a little space for some of these species.
Or we could go the whole hog and turn over our gardens, with their manicured lawns, bedding plants, herbaceous borders, and regimented rows of vegetables, into a proper wildlife garden.
Properly managed of course!