Opinion: weeds in a Chelsea garden is one thing, but the reality is very different
Plants usually described as weeds are making a prominent appearance in this year's Chelsea Flower Show gardens, but what's the reality of having weedy gardens? Ken Thompson takes a step back to explore
Amazing, isn’t it, how the zeitgeist catches you unawares. You wake up one morning and everyone is talking about weeds. And not in the usual way, but about how wonderful they are, how adaptable, how good for wildlife. Suddenly it’s not just fashionable to like weeds, it’s more or less compulsory. There are even weeds at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, for heaven’s sake.
But before you rush to embrace weeds, let’s just take a minute to draw breath and have a think about weeds. And before we do that, let’s think about what makes a good garden plant (the point of this will become apparent in a moment).
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A good garden plant is fast growing. Of course, there are plenty of slow-growing garden plants, but let’s be honest and admit that most of us, when we plant something, like to see something for our efforts this year, or at least in a year or two rather than a decade or two.
There are plenty of picky garden plants, but they are mostly the preserve of the expert
A good garden plant will tolerate a relatively broad range of conditions – soil type, moisture, climate, light etc. Again, of course, there are plenty of picky garden plants, but they are mostly the preserve of the expert or the collector, of someone who likes a challenge.
A good garden plant is resilient. In other words, it will put up with a certain amount of rough treatment. It certainly won’t immediately die if, say, we accidentally tread on it or forget to water it for a few days.
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A good garden plant is easily propagated, from seed or by cuttings or division, if for no other reason than that this largely determines its price. A plant that’s tough to propagate will be expensive, and if it’s also slow-growing (the two tend to go together) it will be even more expensive. In fact being a bit too easily propagated is one reason that some plants have crossed the line from garden plant to weed. Thinking it would be fun to grow green alkanet, Spanish bluebell or Allium triquetrum is a mistake one can easily live to regret.
All the traits that make a good garden plant also make a good weed
To sum up, there’s a spectrum of garden plants, from very easy to grow at one extreme to almost impossible at the other. And clearly, all the traits that make a good garden plant (fast growing, tough, adaptable, rapidly spreading) also make a good weed. Almost without thinking about it, gardeners tend to select, and prefer, plants that are a bit ‘weedy’.
But of course, good garden plants need one final, essential attribute – they must be attractive. So the best garden plants are a bit weedy (= easy to grow) and attractive. In fact some of our favourite plants (e.g. cornflower, corn cockle, corn marigold, common poppy) are weeds, or at least they used to be.
It’s worth noting two important features of the ‘attractiveness spectrum’, from beautiful at one end to downright hideous at the other. First, it’s quite unrelated to how easy a plant is to grow. But second, it’s a very personal thing, and I think all the adherents of the ‘weedy tendency’ have done is simply to adjust their personal threshold a notch or two nearer to the ugly/troublesome end of the spectrum. For example, my impression is that the mauvaise herbe du jour at Chelsea is the dandelion, and of course it’s easy to see why; most of us must have thought, at one time or another, that dandelions would make perfectly acceptable garden plants if only they were a bit better behaved.
No-one has just a few dandelions, or just one creeping buttercup; not for long anyway
However, here’s the problem. It’s easy, when designing a Chelsea garden, to throw in a few dandelions, and maybe the odd buttercup, but the real world isn’t like that. In the first place, no-one has just a few dandelions, or just one creeping buttercup; not for long anyway. Their expansionist tendencies mean that once you take your eyes off them, they’re everywhere. Nor, in the real world, do you get to choose your weeds. Instead, they choose you, and the inexorable operation of Sod’s law says that they are just as likely to be docks, greater plantain, bindweed, couch grass, goose grass and hairy bittercress. Of course, you may like them too, but if you do I suspect you are in a very small minority. And once your garden consists mostly of such usual suspects, it’s a moot point whether it’s still a garden at all.
One final thing about weeds. However much you like them, your neighbours might have other ideas. You may be thrilled to have willowherbs, dandelions and ragwort thriving in your garden, but those who live downwind may not be.
Dr Ken Thompson is a plant ecologist and myth buster, who is known for his scientific and practical approach to gardening. He is author of books on invasive species, biodiversity, wildlife gardening, weeds and compost making.
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