Plantswoman FIONA EDMOND, who owns the award-winning Green Island Gardens in Ardleigh, shares her gardening tips. Today the topic is weeds...

As a child my earliest memories of plants and having an interest in them stemmed from making daisy chains with my aunt and collecting wild flowers early on summer mornings with my grandfather. I would then press them under his beer cans before creating gift cards, bookmarks and pictures. Some of my favourites were wild pansies, poppies and primroses. I grew up believing that a weed was a plant that grew in the wild and when it found its way into our flowerbeds where it was not wanted and then became classed as a weed.

There has been a trend for growing wildflower meadows over the last 10 years or so. People are striving to grow plants that others would class as weeds in a meadow setting. It is not as easy as it might seem, succeeding only where the soil is poor enough that the grass does not outcompete the wild flowers…or “weeds”.

We do not call them weed meadows!

Halstead Gazette: weeds

Plants that we regularly weed out of our gardens can be divided into 2 types. There are annual weeds that germinate, grow, flower and set seed in a very short period of time, often in a matter of only a few weeks. These would include plants such as shepherds purse and speedwell. Perennial weeds tend to have deeper tap roots or stolons and are hard to eliminate, often being resistant to glyphosate herbicides, as well as having the ability to regenerate from the tiniest portion of root. Such plants include docks, dandelions and couch grass.

“Weeds” tend to have certain characteristics, most of them being pernicious, persistent, and competitive. In addition:

They produce seed abundantly

They establish themselves and spread rapidly

The seeds can remain buried but still viable for a long time

They can adapt to various conditions in order to survive and spread further.

However having said all the above this does not always hold true. We often grow foxgloves intentionally in garden situations, or selectively allow them to remain where they appear. Foxglove seed can remain viable for 100 years or more, germinating only when adequate light is available. Thus following the clearance of fallen trees and brambles in our woodland at Green Island huge swathes of foxgloves appeared. The same can be said of Bluebells. Often introduced intentionally, they are so successful at reproducing themselves by seed that they can quickly colonise the woodland understory. However in the flower beds I consider them a weed where they threaten to put in a takeover bid. So over the space of a few metres a certain plant can be considered desirable in one place but a weed in the other instance. I was delighted to find wild primroses in the ditch around Green Island, and wasted no time in digging them up and planting them along the stream sides in our water garden. Similarly there are many plants that we cultivate as garden perennials here in the UK such as Agapanthus, however in their native environment in South Africa they are considered a weed where they colonise dry roadsides in huge quantities.

Halstead Gazette: Foxgloves - seeds can remain viable for 100 years or more

Similarly there are many garden plants which share many characteristics with weeds in their ability to produce seed in a short time and colonise inhospitable sites such as Verbena bonariensis. Most of its seedlings are weeded out each year, preserving only a select few where I want them to grow. Here a proportion of the seedlings are termed weeds and those allowed to stay are not.

In a garden as large as Green Island there are very few plants that I would seek to eradicate totally. Sambucus is a scruffy native shrub, often weeded out, however I preserve several specimens as source of flowerheads with which to make gallons of elderflower cordial. Most gardeners like to plant nectar rich flowering plants such as buddleia in their gardens to encourage butterflies but fewer realise that to allow them to complete their short lifecycle they need to provide the correct plants for them to lay their eggs. Our policy of allowing the grass to grow longer, only strimming once a year means that many pretty wild flowers are allowed to remain. This allows many rare species of butterflies and in particular moths can succeed. The cinnabar moth needs ragwort on which to lay its eggs and for its caterpillars to feed on. Similarly Red Admiral, Tortoiseshell and Comma butterflies require the common stinging nettle. Hence I purposely preserve several patches of nettles in the gardens. The more unusual Elephant Hawkmoth requires rosebay willowherb, so I am never in a hurry to remove their pretty spires of pink flowers. Common Ivy is one of the most important sources of nectar for butterflies preparing to migrate or hibernate as well as birds. Because it flowers so late in the year it too is allowed to grow undisturbed in most instances. Here at Green Island you will see lots of garden plants growing happily alongside what others would class as weeds. This allows me to indulge my lifelong love of wildflowers whilst encouraging a huge range of wildlife.

So having established that the dictionary definition of a weed as “a plant growing in the wrong place or where it it’s not wanted” is correct I would encourage gardeners to perhaps be a little more lenient when weeding in their own gardens, deeming less plants to be “weeds”.