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Why weed power is taking over our gardens

Teasel seedheads in the borders at Great Dixter
Teasel seedheads in the borders at Great Dixter Credit: Marianne Majerus

Over the years I’ve added a group of plants into my garden designs that are free, require no looking after and flower for most of the year. Many gardeners miss out on this secret set of plants; in fact, people tear their hair out getting rid of them. I am of course talking about poor, misunderstood weeds. We’ve been brought up hearing how to rip them out but few sources explain how to control and grow them, so I’ve written a book about it, Wild about Weeds: Garden Design with Rebel Plants.

I’ve always loved weeds; my earliest memories are of daisy chains and plantain leaves in lawns, and I’m not the only one to have discovered their untapped potential. Every gardener I speak to has at least one weed they let off the hook. Ten years ago it would have been madness to include buttercups in a Chelsea Flower Show garden, these days designers would be mad not to, as so many with weeds win gold medals.

Winning gardens at Chelsea Flower Show by Sarah Price and James Basson have used native 'weeds' Credit:  Clara Molden; Heathcliff O'Malley

An interest in wildlife and sustainability, along with increased plant knowledge, is leading us to re-evaluate our gardens. By their nature, weeds are resilient, sustainable plants, that kick off their shoes wherever they want and grow without fuss, fertiliser or plastic packaging. They rarely need watering, and provide food and homes for wildlife. And not only pollinators – each spring I try to spot centipedes, lacewings and hoverflies, in autumn I look forward to striped garden spiders decorating our patio with glistening diamond webs. Native weeds tend to help more wildlife as they’ve evolved with local insects, although many non-natives that were introduced centuries ago contribute, too.

A garden without wildlife and weeds here and there can feel soulless. My own clients request plants that attract butterflies and bees as much as colourful flowers. We want gardens to be dynamic and alive, mini ecosystems that contribute to the natural world, bringing it closer to our lives. I’m keen to do this without sacrificing the style and design of contemporary gardens, but there’s no need; a wildlife garden can be stylish, it doesn’t have to be messy.

Around the streets of our cities and towns, the most unnatural of habitats, weeds are first to make a home alongside us. They’re trying to tell us something by decorating walls and pavements, producing colour for most of the year with no help whatsoever. As the Earth’s population tips further to urban living, it’s these plants that hold answers for our future. I’ve added many to living walls, such as yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea), creeping Jenny (Convolvulus arvensis) and the fern Polypodium vulgare.

“A plant in the wrong place” as the traditional definition of a weed doesn’t quite cut it for me. In my experience gardeners don’t mind the odd weed in all sorts of places, what they hate is mischievous, relentless spread. And while weeds can be considered a wild flower, is a plant in a garden wild? Is a fern a flower? Better to do away with labels, instead to understand and appreciate plants individually, then we can learn to manage them.

Controlling weeds is made possible by flipping gardening on its head. Unlike many ornamental plants that require mollycoddling, weeds simply need containing, by pulling out the odd seedling or growing them among larger, tougher plants. When planning a new border, why not start with your most troublesome weed as the foundation – then it can never ruin the scheme.

My hope with Wild about Weeds is that it helps you find one weed you like, bringing easy, sustainable colour and wildlife to your garden. Or at the very least, provide an excuse to tell people any weeds in your garden are intentional…

Find Jack’s blog at jackwallington.com. Follow him on Twitter @jackwallington;
Instagram @jackwallingtongardendesign