When is a weed not a weed?

July 30 2019
When is a weed not a weed?

The City Gardener, with Tim Barton

When is a weed not a weed? Essentially a weed is classified as a plant that’s in the wrong place, every plant has a home it’s simply that some are there because you choose them to be and others just muscle in on the party. Beyond the normal plants that fall into this category, Dandelion, Thistle, Clover, Herb Robert I have tomato, potato and French beans to add to the list this year, certainly not plants you’d usually classify as a weed. The tomatoes have sprung up in the garden among some old compost, they’re certainly in the wrong place but in reality I know that if I get all the fruit then they’re not going to repeat and anyway they’re easy to control. For this reason I’ve just let them be, if they don’t get blight then I’ll have a few more for the salad bowl soon. Likewise the beans have just sprung up where they grew last year from a few seeds that must have been left behind after the harvest. They’re doing no harm and are nestled among my root vegetables so again they can stay. The potatoes on the other hand are proving to be really stubborn. Nearly 3 years ago I took on my allotment plot and a previous occupant had grown potatoes but left before harvesting them, as a result they were coming up everywhere. I routinely pull the plants up where I see them but they keep coming. Unfortunately if you’ve ever had to harvest potatoes you’ll know that even if you sieved the soil to 1m deep you’ll still miss a few the size of a fist! This year, where I have never planted potatoes before and where I swear there were none last year I have half a dozen that have sprung up, mostly missed among the tall grass that they’re now bearing new tubers themselves.

Achieving horticultural perfection is the desire of many gardeners, some take it to extreme lengths to achieve this while others are happy with a less disciplined approach. I personally have never used any weed killers organic or otherwise and I don’t intend to, but I cultivate a reasonable looking garden that’s very low maintenance. I accept that there’ll be grass growing in the patio cracks, chickweed popping up all over the place and dandelions in my lawn, but that for me is part of its appeal. One of the more extreme methods of weed control is to just remove all places that plants can grow, pave over any bare soil and lay a plastic lawn. This maybe to some people's liking but in our current situation where it’s so apparent that we need to maintain as much flora as we can and preferably as wild as possible I can’t help feeling sad that this is even a choice.

The most effective way that I find of keeping the weed levels down to almost nothing is to mulch once a year and do little else. Most seeds that fall will germinate from there or get worked into the soil over the winter months until they can germinate again in spring, by adding a layer of mulch over the top to an inch or more you prevent most of them from being able to get going. Also there are a huge number of seeds sitting under the soil that as soon as you dig will get brought to the surface and again will start to grow when it warms up, the best place to have them is where they are and where they can’t germinate. This eliminates the need to any weed killers and is beneficial to the soil as well.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about our declining wildlife and this is partly down to the way that we maintain our outdoor spaces by removing habitats with our clean and neat attitude towards the perfect garden. Just let some of it go, leave dead perennials standing and let the grass get long, nature will thank you for it.