What makes a weed?

Tamsin Westhorpe shares her love/hate relationship with garden weeds and wildflowers

Lawn daisy (Bellis perennis)
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The country lanes that skirt my rural home have been familiar to me most of my life. As a child I cycled and walked them almost every day. They hold many happy memories and they taught me a so much about wild flowers. I would often admire the native blooms and as a result many of these plants are my favourites. In May the verges offer the most wonderful display from cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), red dead-nettle (Lamium pupureum), common vetch (Vicia sativa subsp. segetalis) and red campion (Silene dioica). This joyful mix of plants are what makes our countryside so great.

Friend or foe?

Dandelions are hard to get rid of.

When gardening in the countryside it’s inevitable that weed seed will float in on the breeze and make a home in the borders. In my borders I battle many perennial weeds. I’m sure I’m not alone in instantly referring to the very same plants that I admire in the hedgerows as weeds as soon as they cross the garden boundary. This change of heart confirms to me that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place and what some pull out, others nurture. Although I’m keen to weed out and control many native plants there are a few that are welcome to stay. I’m not for weeding out the dainty scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) or the biennial herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). In fact, I admire this pink flowering native so much that my son is named after it – I’m not sure how impressed he is about being named after a plant that many refer to as a weed! My other favourite is the lawn daisy (Bellis perennis).

Invasive perennial weeds

Dock is another weed with a tenacious tap root.

There are some weeds that any formal garden open to the public dare not allow. If they’re seen amongst the roses they are certain to be frowned upon. These include the dandelion, dock, and nettle. None of these are welcome in my garden but keeping them under control is far from easy. They’re all perennial and put down very impressive roots. The tap roots of the dandelion and dock need to be completely removed and to do this successfully I use an old kitchen knife.

Another perennial with exceptional rooting power is ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria). Although I admit to admiring its white flowers, it’s not a weed I enjoy sharing my garden with. Leave just a tiny piece of the root in the soil and whoosh it takes off. Without resorting to chemical control, the best and only way to beat it is to lift all the ornamental plants in the border and remove every piece of white root before replanting. It’s certainly a challenge and if all else fails you can eat it. The young leaves are a substitute for spinach.

Weed control

The trick to controlling all weeds is to lift them before they flower and set seed. The annual hairy bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a fine example of a weed that if allowed to set seed will fire its seed far and wide. On warm days hoeing annuals off is the quickest solution.

The key to controlling or enjoying weeds is to identify them correctly and understand how they spread. This way you can stay one step ahead of them. There are many that should be admired for their beauty and their value to beneficial insects. The trick is to control the weeds you want to welcome – edit out those that are over enthusiastic and remove those completely that offend your eye or put your ornamentals at risk. Happy weeding.

Tamsin Westhorpe

About Tamsin Westhorpe

Tamsin Westhorpe is well known as an editor, garden writer and lecturer. However, she prefers to be known as a gardener. She was previously Editor of The English Garden magazine and lecturer at Kingston Maurwood College in Dorset. Tamsin started her gardening career at the age of 16 working for her great uncle John Treasure of Burford House Gardens in Worcestershire. Alongside her freelance work and being a mother Tamsin runs Stockton Bury Gardens in Herefordshire with her uncles and is currently training to be an RHS judge.
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