When I was young and full of vim and vigor my first job in horticulture was with a company that restored native habitats. I was that handsome swain amongst the corn cockle and poppies scything wild flower meadows for hay or sometimes taking the part of the heroic wood cutter as I restored a woodland to true balance. Though I never managed to run into any Milkmaids or Red Riding Hoods it did allow me to learn just how important balance is within any garden.
I remember one day that I, thinking I had learned my lessons well, was happily pulling large patches of clover from a meadow we had seeded the year before. All at once I felt a boot bounce off the back of my head quickly followed by language that was more suited to the dockside than the mouth of a lady. It turned out that the clover was not weed the I had assumed it was, but rather a vital part of the puzzle that was needed. “it’s a “$@&!ing nectar plant!” she screamed at me and then once her blood pressure had returned to something less than critical she sat down amongst the flowers and taught me about true balance.
Every seed we had sown, every flower that grew there had a purpose. While in a garden there was some stability in the planting plan, in a wild flower meadow there are stages, each as beautiful as the last. Ox-eye daisy, the plant I had been trying to encourage would only last a few years as it was used to reduce the soil fertility. Clover had an important role as a nitrogen fixer and also to encourage nectar loving insects and especially bees. Getting up she brushed off her trousers and walked me to the edge of the meadow which we had been told on pain of being sacked and then being brutally murdered to not go near. Parting the grass I was shown the real reason, a clump of bee orchids, one of which had a bee trying to hump its flower. That was the reason for the clover. Without the clover there would be less bees, and with less bees the orchids wouldn’t have as many pollinators. “So we keep the $&@!ing clover” was her parting comment as she walked off.
So what is a weed? What defines in our mind a good and bad plant? It seems so random. Wen you speak to one person it’s a cherished bloom and yet to someone else it is hateful and should be ripped out immediately. The definition that tends to be parroted out is that a weed is simply “a flower that is in the wrong place.” But to my mind that is a little simplistic though. Sometimes a flower may be in the wrong place but be performing a vital function. Garlic in the rose garden is a classic example. Technically it in wrong place so must be a weed but remove it and watch your aphid population burgeon. So simply being in the wrong place shouldn’t be a crime. Perhaps rather than say “weed” we should use a more correct term such as “native” or “wild”. If nothing else it has a more romantic ring to it.
There is, I think, a better quote, this time from an artist. William Morris said “let everything you do be beautiful and practical” with the stress being on the “and”. When considering the garden I definitely think the same rule should be applied. Plants can be beautiful, they can be practical, but how much better if they can be both? Native plants have been used for millennia by the local population of beneficial insects and they have adapted to depend on them as a food source, a nursery for their eggs and young, and as a hunting ground for pest species. When all we consider is beauty then we remove that link in the chain and have to rely on chemicals to do their work.
Its interesting how as gardeners we have become fixated with the most bizarre blooms that look more Salvador Dali than Monet. If its not double with petals so congested that they look like they will never fully open, then it’s a color that has never been found in nature. Trouble is a lot of these newer blooms are infertile so they don’t provide food sources, and even if they are then it’s impossible to get to the nectar. Case in point? Man’s quest for a blue rose. My only comment would be “why?” Some flowers are just not designed to be certain colors.
In short, everything is connected. Without the pollinators we don’t get apples on our apple trees or tomatoes in our vegetable garden. Without the beneficial insects we are force to reach for the chemicals. Birds need the berries and seeds that they would find in the wild to see them through until they can gorge on slugs, snails and aphids. Without nectar producing flowers we can never see the look of wonder on our children’s face when they see their first butterfly. This last one is perhaps the most tragic of them all.
So next time you weed through your beds ask yourself whether there is a purpose for that plant you’re itching to throw onto the compost. You can always transplant to a quieter corner of your property though I would always, always suggest you try to incorporate natives into your planting plan. Not everything needs to be manicured into submission so allow a line on your boundary to grow wild. Cut down on the fertilizers and sprays. What you will achieve in the end is something beautiful but that also is practical.