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Welcome to our spring newsletter. This is a special edition, all about weeds.
"A weed is a plant that is in the wrong place"
Well, perhaps. Maybe there is more to the story than that. Maybe, for example, they are plants whose contribution to the garden we have not yet understood.
In the eye of the beholder
This flower is in full intense blue at the moment in our garden. It looks lovely. I was surprised to find out that it is often described as a weed. It is green alkanet, a member of the borage family. For me, one advantage of green alkanet is that it is deep-rooted enough to resist the ground elder which you can see growing behind it.
Ground elder was introduced to Britain by the Romans. For them it was not a weed but a vegetable. I can confirm that the young leaves are a tasty addition to a salad. The medium-sized leaves (before it flowers) can be cooked like spinach. But I can't bring myself to love it: it is so badly behaved, so vigorous. In the places where it grows I can only put in plants that are strong enough not to be swamped by it - and even then it keeps sending underground scouting parties to find new areas to colonise. I have to keep my eye on it and remind it of its manners, usually with the aid of a trowel. That makes ground elder a weed in my book.
So, a plant that is a weed for me was a culinary delicacy to the Romans, and another person's weed is my pretty blue flower.
Annual and perennial weeds
The annual weeds are pioneer plants. The bare spaces we leave in our gardens and veg plots are an invitation to them to get to work, to put the skin back on the earth. One way of reducing interference, and therefore the need for weeds to do their bit, is to add a thick layer of compost instead of digging when sowing or planting out young plants. More about no-dig gardening here.
I am finding out that many annual weeds are edible and/or have medicinal properties. For example chickweed, that irritating creeping weed that winds its way around the onions, was a salad vegetable for the Victorians. However, it is important to make a firm identification of each weed before collecting the ingredients for a weed salad. A good place to start is the Herb, Plant & Foraging Workgroup on Facebook.
A common annual weed in many gardens is hairy bittercress, cardamine hirsuta. As it is a brassica (cabbage family) it is edible, and the leaves are delicious.
Bittercress doesn't grow in our garden, so we use a relative: land cress, barbarea verna. Here it is on one of our raised beds. Each spring I pull up all of the plants except for a few at the edge, which I leave to go to seed. By autumn, after I have harvested whatever else was growing there, the new land cress plants start to grow. From then until February we have a crop of cress leaves, even through a hard winter like the one we have just experienced.
Perennial weeds have a different function. Their job seems to be about balance. For example, one of our borders was infested with clover: tendrils of it making a thick mat. One year I pulled it all out - and then it occurred to me that clover is a legume. It fixes nitrogen. Maybe it had done its job, because that border is now healthy and the clover hasn't come back. I wonder if the other perennial weeds are attempting to redress imbalances I don't know about, so I leave some of them at the back of the beds where they don't get in the way of the display.
The exploration continues: looking for ways to work with the garden and the plants that grow in it, for the benefit of all. I am not an expert on weeds. The writing here comes from what I have noticed about them in our garden.
Non-weed-related news: we are still here, and so are our resellers. Lots of weeding tools to choose from, for both annual and perennial weeds. Also, we recently added a new page to the website, telling a bit more of our story. Please contact us with any comments, stories, feedback or suggestions for new tools.
And we wish you good gardening in this summer of 2018.
Warm greetings from Jane and Nigel