Weeds – what’s weeds?

by AnneWareham on June 11, 2013

Meadow with buttercups and Brodiaea at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Weeds attract repetitive garden articles, as useful as those about slugs. So I’ll try and spare you the cliches and report my current thinking.

A visitor yesterday took me to see the flower of ground elder, thinking it was cow parsley. No difference as far as he was concerned, nor me neither. He thought it shouldn’t be there. I thought it looked great.

Crescent border early June Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Believe me, some of those whites are pink. #rottenphotographerme

Crescent border at Veddw early June copyright Anne Wareham

Still too white…

But this is not to say that flowering ground elder looks great everywhere. It has overtaken me in the front garden, despite my vow to remove the flowers  (too many and too little time?) (yes, I know, but I’d rather be  doing this and 1001 other good things!)

Front garden early June Veddw copyright Anne Wareham


But it looks good in the crescent border where it mingles with the pink  thalictrum (yes, you will find that all over Veddw at the moment too, making different pictures) and the matching Persicaria bistorta and rugosa rose. I love the way those colours match and the forms are so totally different. Though in the photographs I took they have come out white…

The effect, to me, is country casual. A sort of heightened rural lane verge.

Crescent border at Veddw early June copyright Anne Wareham

Country lane..?

The fact that there are a lot of all those flowering things, well massed and the masses intermingled, helps. But it doesn’t help the gentleman (yes he was just that) who enquired about whether the cow parsley should be there. He has probably spent many hours attempting to eliminate such plants, so the look is just one thing to him: weedy.

Meadow early June Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Buttercups are weeds. Massing helps? This is the meadow..

This is not simply that old chestnut about ‘it’s all a matter of taste’ though. It is hard to see the merits of what we have come to instantly spot and fear as a BAD plant. But if we look at gardens with discernment I think we can cope. The challenge for the garden visitor is to look twice and take in the overall scene and intention. The challenge for the garden maker is to create a picture that works and a picture which doesn’t look weedy when you stop labelling/stereotyping the plants.

Nettle at Chelsea copyright Anne Wareham for Veddw

Tasteful nettle at Chelsea 2013

There is no recipe for this. This is where the skill of a good garden maker tells – the looking, the judgement, the adding and removal, the adjustments. I have never found trailing or climbing plants look good to me in amongst a mixed planting – cleavers is just horrible, anywhere – and the partly smothered look they create says wasteland always.

Almost always. I have a Clematis Montana flowering at the moment amongst a Rosa wichuriana (vigorous rambler) and ground elder. (not yet flowering). The flowers are beautiful, large and telling. The effect is – not weedy?

Rosa wichuraiana and Clematis Montana at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Rosa wichuraiana and Clematis Montana

See what I mean about judgement and adjustments? This is gardening.

Anne Wareham


For really intelligent garden writing (by other people) do read thinkingardens


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John June 11, 2013 at 2:12 pm

You summed it up in one word in a photo caption – “massing”. Within 2 acres, masses of wild flowers – weeds to many – not only look good and require little attention (other than limitation sometimes) but are major benefactors of insects that need help. I am one of the sceptics when it comes to the argument that neonics are largely responsible for bee decline; rather (diseases aside) I think it is things like the loss of habitat as hedgerows are meticulously chopped and verges mown in the interests of road safety.

There is also a benefit for the gardener – these wild flowers attract butterflies and often play host to their caterpillars which seem to prefer them to more prized plants. The caterpillars attract birds which feed on them and often have a side salad of other bugs.

The secret (which you’ve cracked) is to use these wild flowers deliberately in your design. I was chatting to one of your other visitors last year who had turned much of his small front garden over to rosebay willow herb. He loved it though some of his neighbours didn’t!

AnneWareham June 11, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Thanks, John, and yes – rosebay willowherb is another much maligned plant. Pulls up very easily…and comes in great cultivated varieties too.

Paul Steer June 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I am a convert to ‘weedy’ gardening. I find that even in my small patch I am able to edit and control nettles, buttercups, cuckoo flower etc, so they do not take over, but blend. Nettles are such an important food plant for caterpillars, and they are easy to control early in the season when the ground is moist…you can pull up the running roots in handfuls. I have just finished another painting of a small tortoiseshell today, and they would not be with us if we all got rid of ‘weeds’ and that would be a tragedy.

AnneWareham June 11, 2013 at 7:39 pm

True! Weeds – otherwise known as British native plants?

Bridget June 11, 2013 at 10:11 pm

If I called it anthriscus sylvestris would that make it better? I don’t think this is just about massing, it is also about plant quality. I am fighting to make a sloping bed of geraniums, representing water flowing down the hill. The modern hybrids (Brookside, Rozanne) give me good ground cover and fabulous flowering patterns. The ‘weedy’ species won’t achieve this. But in other parts of the garden, ground elder does a different trick, and I am considering London Pride for a bank in the hopes it’s weedy characteristics will give me what I want.
So I am happy to look at the right plant in the right place. While that includes where the plant is happy and therefore spreads and grows well, that is not enough. It also has to provide the right picture. This is what Anne talks about – do not think that her ‘I hate work’ persona extends to putting up with the wrong plant in the wrong place. Even if she does ask Charles to do the heavy lifting!

AnneWareham June 11, 2013 at 10:32 pm

London Pride ‘weedy’? Not my thought but illustrates what an odd designation ‘weed’ is.

Think my point about my failure in the front garden – where the ground elder flowers have not yet been removed – rather suggests that you are flattering me. I would say it’s not so much about plant quality as plant/flower type? Ground elder flower in front garden: I’d rather not. In crescent border – good.

As for heavy lifting – have to do that myself mostly – surrounded by dodgy backs!

amy June 12, 2013 at 12:14 pm

“A weed is a flower in the wrong place” – or so I have read many times. And yes, I agree wholeheartedly that “This is where the skill of a good garden maker tells – the looking, the judgement, the adding and removal, the adjustments. “

AnneWareham June 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Yes – the wrong place saying doesn’t go far enough…

Charles Hawes June 13, 2013 at 10:03 pm

This is not on the point perhaps but having spent 3 days walking in the Yorkshire Dales, what I have been most struck by has been the beauty of the fields and verges. Masses of cow parsley. Swathes of buttercup with maybe a few other species spread through the yellow blankets. Great clumps of yellow violas and colonies of orchids growing through rough grass. The restraint of the palette of flowering plants makes for stunning effect. Its not about the wildness or weediness so much as the simplicity that makes such planting so satisfying.

AnneWareham June 13, 2013 at 10:47 pm

That’s another part of the work. (when it’s the garden, not the Dales!)

bernhard June 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Just the thought of it: Some-one (like the boring primus of a school class) coming to your garden and reprimanding you that ground elder or cow parsley is flowering somewhere… Could have left you speechless, laughing, miffed, philosophic or all this and more together.

Luckily, you (also) wrote this thoughtful piece. So-called weeds is a tricky thing in a garden and I agree, there is no proper recipe how to deal with them. It all depends. Yet, it could be possible to acquire a taste (or feeling) what might work and what not. Perhaps some boldness and experience (I won’t say education) is necessary not to eradicate unwanted or unexpected things first but rather revisit, play and arrange with them, too. Which is not at all the same as being not always on top of things.

And I loved this expression “a plant has overtaken me”. Will borrow that from now on if I get permission.

Felt a little suspicious about the Chelsea nettle, though. There, it almost looked too nice or natural if not out of place, like a forced affair or a post-post-modern joke.

AnneWareham June 15, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Another interesting expression, which delimits playing with weeds is ‘that gardens has got away from them.’ ! Time to give up then…

Rycke Brown June 16, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Gardening is making a landscape beautiful and orderly. A weed is a plant growing in the wrong place, which is disorderly.

Some plants get around more than others and tend to grow in the wrong place. Some plants have no place in an orderly garden, having annoying seeds that are burrs or stickers, little beauty, or other annoying habits like shedding seeds to the wind. But for some plants, the difference between a weed and a good garden plant is merely location, and inches can make the difference.

Any plants that appears to be growing everywhere and mask the beauty of plants around them look weedy. Thus I pulled a lot of California poppies from the my dad’s terraces, leaving a few clumps toward the back of the beds.

Gardening naturally,

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener

AnneWareham June 16, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Yes. Though I’m not sure about ‘orderly’. Need to think about that one. Is a meadow orderly, I wonder?

Cindy at enclos*ure June 17, 2013 at 3:20 pm

The exchange above made me remember:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O Let them be left, wildness and wet:
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “Inversnaid”

AnneWareham June 17, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Yes, I love that poem! Thank you – well said.

Rycke Brown June 17, 2013 at 4:49 pm

There are no weeds in the wilderness; no plant is out of place. But how much wilderness do we have? It is by definition relatively inaccessible. Wilderness is undisturbed ground, and we have disturbed everything near our dwellings.

Gardening is necessary to keep the world we live in, our neighborhoods and farms, factories and parks, stores and railroads, orderly and therefore safe. 90% of gardening is killing and cutting and plants that would otherwise take over our world, annoy the heck out of us, and burn us out of house and home, as is happening lately in Colorado Springs. Grants Pass is a fire trap waiting for a spark.

In England, you appear to still have a good weeding culture, as they do in the Midwest. The Western U.S. has never quite developed it; we are still stuck in a frontier mentality that the wilderness will take care of itself, when we aren’t living in a wilderness. We have run our cattle on, cut, and mined most of it. It is disturbed; it must be cared for.

The big trouble is, we have developed all kind of labor saving tools, chemicals, and techniques that people think they don’t have to weed, but weeding is still necessary. Riding mowers, weed whackers, herbicides, and finely ground bark are the ruin of our world.

30 years ago, we didn’t have landscape maintenance; we had gardeners. But the big contractors stopped pulling weeds, cut, sprayed and mulched, and called it landscape maintenance. It’s landscape ruination, often by absentee contractors who don’t even visit the job site after they bid on it; they just send out their ignorant, uncaring crews.

Gardening naturally,

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener

Weeding the Web June 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm

I think the ground elder flower is lovely. But I’ve just spent weeks uprooting it because the leaves drown out everything around them, and the roots insinuate themselves through every plant. A few clumps would look great but they won’t stay that way and though it pains me to remove a plant entirely (hah, as if I could with this one!) if I can I will. If I had the space for promiscuous massing, it would be a lovely addition. I hope the gentleman didn’t see all the cow parsley at Great Dixter – between you, he would need to lie down in a dark room.

AnneWareham June 21, 2013 at 10:21 pm

When ground elder is in a bed with other things it needs discouraging (but I believe it will not be eliminated). So I keep cutting it down: I think of it as a task a bit like mowing. I know I’ll have to do it regularly. That’s OK.

Richard June 22, 2013 at 7:47 am

Weeds can now be used in companion planting. Now a good example is feverfew which contains a natural insecticide, pyrethrin.
From my experience some of my clients have some wild plants growing, like centeriun growing in their gardens, which they consider as a plant as it adds colour to their borders. Other consider it as a weed. So it a matter of choice
When I was at college we were taught a good example ” if a farmer grows wheat one year in a field then barley in the following year, should the wheat germinate in that same field then that is considered a weed” In other words a plant that not needed.